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A beer-can decoy and random acts of kindness: How Philly combats package thefts

Are package thefts up in Philly this year, as many suspect? According to Philadelphia police and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, there's no way to tell.

Home surveillance cameras have caught several people in the act of stealing packages this season, including the above, unidentified suspects.
Home surveillance cameras have caught several people in the act of stealing packages this season, including the above, unidentified suspects.Read moreAnthony Ricci and Philadelphia Police

They slithered and slunked, with smiles most unpleasant, around the whole city they took every present.

Go to any neighborhood or any neighborhood Facebook page — especially in this holiday season — and you'll find Philly residents whose packages have been stolen from their front steps and porches.

"Hey neighbors! Did anyone happen to find 75 pounds of cat litter…? Looks like someone swiped it upon delivery yesterday," one woman wrote on a South Philly Facebook page Sunday.

Neighbors post surveillance camera footage online, trying to armchair-detective their way to possible suspects, and they kvetch about how the problem only seems to be getting worse.

Are package thefts  up in Philly, as many suspect? There's no way to tell. Neither the Philadelphia police nor the U.S. Postal Inspection Service could provide statistics on package thefts.

In the absence of concrete information, Philadelphians are combating the perceived epidemic the best way they know how — with kindness and, in at least one case, beer.

Last week, the surveillance camera at Anthony Ricci's Roxborough home caught a man stealing a package from his porch. Luckily, the box  contained only Christmas decorations. But the theft got Ricci, 26, thinking: Could he obtain additional footage to catch the thief?

"We were just sitting around the house with some friends and figured we'd throw out a dummy package to see if someone would grab it," he said.

Ricci took an empty box and strung a fishing line through it. He put the box on the front porch, ran the fishing line under his front door, and connected the other end to the "most accessible thing I had that makes noise" — a beer can.

On Monday when Ricci returned home from work, the package was on its side. He checked the footage and, sure enough, it appears the same man who stole his package tried to swipe the decoy.

"It was pretty brazen of the guy to do it in broad daylight, back to back at the same house," Ricci said.

Jennifer Nelson, 50, has lived in Fishtown for five years and had heard little about package thefts until last year, when "the neighborhood got insane." This year, "it's gotten worse," she said.

On Friday, a delivery driver left on Nelson's porch a package that was supposed to require a signature. Thanks to an observant neighbor, the thief was nabbed.

"He told me he saw the package, saw it missing, and then saw the suspicious guy dragging a trash can on wheels," Nelson said. "The package was too heavy to carry on his own, so he found a can with wheels to carry it. That's a big thing around here."

To combat the thefts, some business owners and people who work from home are offering to serve as free delivery spots for neighbors' packages.

Sheehan Kovall, owner of Pit Stop HQ, a pet supply and doggy day-care business in the Italian Market, said he's always offered the service to clients and direct neighbors and wanted to expand the option to anyone this year.

"I felt compelled after seeing so many videos online of packages being stolen," he said. "And I guess I thought it'd be a nice way to meet people I wouldn't ordinarily get to meet."

Majdi Utqi's Robola Pizza in Wynnefield has been a UPS drop-off location for more than two years. Utiqi said he gets paid by UPS to have 400 to 500 packages delivered to his pizza shop per month — and more during the holiday season.

"This way, we get to know everybody who lives around here by their names and not just how they look," he said. "It becomes like family then. We're helping the community and we're helping ourselves."

For those who don't have such an option, businesses like Fishbox will, for a fee, serve as a drop-off location for packages, and then deliver them to your door between 7 and 10 p.m.

Authorities recommend having packages delivered to a neighbor's house, office, or the post office, where they can be held for pickup.

If you are the victim of a package theft, police and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service recommend these steps:

1. Check with the delivery company and carrier to see if the item has been delivered.

2. Alert your local police by calling the district or 911 to file a theft report.

3. Call the U.S. Postal Inspection Service at 877-876-2455 and report the theft.

4. If you have surveillance video, register with the Philadelphia Police Department's SafeCam program.

How package thefts are investigated

Thefts of mail and packages delivered by the U.S. Postal Service automatically fall under the purview of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Unless someone is accused of stealing so much that the case can be prosecuted in federal court, package theft cases are typically handed over to Philly police, said Reggie Wade, U.S. postal inspector for the Philadelphia division. He said stolen packages delivered by other companies are also investigated by Philly police.

If Philadelphia police arrest a suspect, the individual is charged with theft, police spokesman Sgt. Eric Gripp said.

"With every incident involving the United States Postal Service, whether it's their employees or packages under their care, we will always confer with the postal inspector to see if they wish to handle the job," Gripp said. "If not, we'll start the investigation."