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June 30, 2023

Pa. lawmakers target package theft, could impose tougher penalties

'Porch pirates' affected nearly two million Pennsylvanians last year. A bill that would more heavily criminalize package theft passed in the Senate this month

With online shopping becoming increasingly popular, Pennsylvania residents have had to grapple with mail snatched up by so-called porch pirates — thieves targeting packages delivered to homes. 

An estimated 260 million packages were stolen from porches in the United States in 2022, with an estimated $19.5 billion lost to theft. In Pennsylvania, close to two million residents have had a package stolen; package theft was up 16% in Philadelphia last year.

In an effort to dissuade thieves from stealing packages, Pennsylvania lawmakers have introduced companion bills in the House and Senate that would impose specific penalties for mail theft, rather than charging perpetrators with theft based simply on the price of stolen objects. 

The version of the bill that was introduced in the state Senate, authored by Sen. Frank Farry, passed in a 44-6 vote, with 16 Democrats voting to support it. Its companion bill in the state House, authored by Rep. Kristin Marcell, was sent to the House Judiciary Committee in late March.

"Porch pirating is a growing trend with the evolution of online shopping and the volume of people that shop online and have packages delivered to their front porch or door," Farry told City & State PA. "Quite often, the packages that are taken are of nominal value. They're lower-dollar-amount items and that results — if the person is actually caught and convicted — in the penalty (being) a summary offense." 

Mail theft would be classed as a third-degree misdemeanor if the content of the stolen mail is valued at less than $50, according to the bill. As the value of the property increases, so would the grading of the offense for violators. Offenders would be charged with a third-degree felony if they have a previous conviction for mail theft or if the mail is valued at more than $1,000. If the package contains a firearm, the thief would be charged with a second-degree felony. 

While package theft is certainly not a new concept, the pandemic made online shopping more ubiquitous and made home deliveries more common, which has led to millions of packages stolen over the last few years. Though the rates of online shopping have dropped slightly since the beginning of the pandemic, the rates remain higher than they were before the pandemic. Package theft typically surges during the holidays.

Though Philly was not named among the top 10 hotspots for package theft in a 2022 report from Safewise, the home security company found that three out of four Americans will be a victim in their lifetime. 

As complaints of porch pirates are running rampant on neighborhood Facebook groups and apps like Nextdoor, some Philadelphians are taking security into their own hands and purchasing private mailbox services so packages are delivered to a secure location somewhere other than their homes. Business has been booming for private mailbox companies in Philly like FishboxStash Spot and the Package Safe Club.

"This crime has impacted almost two million Pennsylvanians," Marcell said last week. "When you consider the average cost of the package stolen is $43, you can see this crime leaves a sizable financial toll, not to mention the emotional distress of having your personal property violated." 

While New Jersey implemented its own law targeting porch pirates at the beginning of 2022, package theft remains a lesser offense in Pennsylvania. A bill that would make the theft of any package a federal crime has stalled in Congress since it was introduced in 2022.