When Eric, a resident of Milwaukee’s Brewers Hill neighborhood, ordered two pieces of custom-monogrammed luggage as a gift last week, his biggest worry was keeping it a secret from the intended recipient.

But within five minutes of the package being delivered at 6:58 p.m., it was gone.

He promptly checked the four security cameras around his house and discovered someone had taken the package at 7:03 p.m. As he went up and down the street, he realized the thief had taken other packages and replaced them with empty boxes.

Eric called the police.

Within an hour of it being taken, his luggage was returned, along with several other neighbors’ packages.

“I really want to thank MPD District 5 because they did an absolutely phenomenal job,” he said. “I called and made a post on Nextdoor and within 15 minutes, police arrested somebody already.”

The unusual outcome was due to neighborhood vigilance: someone noticed a suspicious van filled with empty boxes. But most of the time, it’s difficult to apprehend the thieves.

“Porch pirates”— the cute name for a not-so-cute problem facing online shoppers during the busy holiday season — are becoming more prevalent as more shopping moves online. Nine percent of all retail sales in the United States were made online as of September, according to the Department of Commerce. 

The thieves often ramp up activity around the holiday season and online shoppers know it; in Milwaukee, the search term “package stolen” has been of peak interest since Sunday.

Last year, Xfinity revealed that one-third of Americans reported having packages stolen, while a Shorr.com survey found that 41% of people avoided shopping online because they feared package theft.

RELATED: Package theft hits nearly one-third of Americans. Is video surveillance the answer?

So how can online consumers protect themselves?

Preventative Measures

Most large, online retailers have developed preventative methods for dealing with package theft.

Amazon offers customers the opportunity to use Amazon lockers or choose a local pick-up location — options that aren’t always available, depending on package size and shipping speed.

That’s why Amazon also started offering in-home and in-car deliveries with Amazon Key, which allows deliveries to be placed in customer’s homes or trunk if they have remote access to lock and unlock the door. Amazon also offers to work with building managers to install Amazon hubs in apartments as a $20,000 “amenity.”

Walmart has a similar delivery service as Amazon Key though August home, a grocery delivery service.

Despite all of these options, nearly two-thirds (61%) of respondents from the Shorr survey said they felt online retailers haven’t done enough to prevent package theft.

Part of the issue is that retailers use different shipping companies based on price and speed, which can create an extra hoop for online shoppers to jump through if they have to reroute all their packages to pick-up locations instead of having them delivered to their homes.

However, most items shipped through other retailers utilize Fedex, UPS or the U.S. Postal Service, which allows users to request items be held at brick-and-mortar pick-up locations.

Milwaukee Police Sgt. Sheronda Grant suggested that customers arrange to be home at the time of delivery or request that a signature be required for the delivery.

“Take the extra time to create an account and set up the alerts in order to receive real-time information,” she said, also suggesting that good, old-fashioned neighborhood vigilance can go a long way.

“(Make) sure you are looking out for your neighbors,” she added. “Of course, (if) it’s a neighbor that you trust, just say ,’hey I’m expecting something, just let me know if you see it.'”

Catching the Culprits

Should items come up missing, Amazon and Walmart will typically issue refunds or in some cases, reship items.

If a package from Amazon hasn’t been delivered within 36 hours when a delivery was reported, they offer the following suggestions:

  • Verify the shipping address
  • Look for a notice of attempted delivery
  • Check the delivery location for your package
  • See if someone else accepted the delivery

Other advice includes locating the tracking number, calling the customer service line of the retailer and/or shipping carrier and/or filing a police report.

Some unorthodox tactics

Along with traditional methods to stop porch pirates, such as installing security cameras, having packages delivered at work, and/or having packages delivered to places out of sight, there are also some unorthodox ones out there.

In Jersey City, N.J., police have started placing tracking devices in fake packages to catch thieves in sting operations.

And last year in Tacoma, Wash., Jaireme Barrow innovated his own device to scare thieves. The Blank Box, which is rigged with a fishing wire and a 12-gauge shotgun, shoots off a blank whenever someone attempts to lift it from the porch; ironically, police warn that such devices can cause issues if they injure the would-be thief.

Thieves caught stealing items can be charged with a variety of crimes, depending on the frequency and nature of the theft as well as the value of the items stolen.

Some of the charges include criminal trespass, misdemeanor/felony theft, and vandalism if any property damage occurs.

Eric, the Brewers Hill resident, said he didn’t want his last name used because he still has to testify in court against the thieves and said he doesn’t want his home to become a target.

Although it was the first time he had experienced an issue, he now plans to switch up his shipping habits.

“I never had a problem in 11 years,” he said. “But obviously this is something that has been happening more and more and more as people shop online.”

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