The rise of online shopping has left Americans vulnerable to "porch pirates" -- those malefactors who make off with the unattended delivery boxes left sitting outside our front doors. In some case, these are crimes of opportunity, but in others, the thefts are more organized, with the pirates hitting multiple homes in a neighborhood, or even following delivery vehicles from house to house.

They're a menace that has Americans worried, especially at this time of year. According to a recent survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of Canary, a smart-home security company, 49% of us are concerned about having gifts stolen in this way, and 47% worry that porch pirates could ruin their holidays.

Based on prior studies, they have a point, and the numbers are moving in an unpleasant direction. "25.9 million Americans (8%) have had a holiday package delivery stolen from a front porch or doorstep," reported a 2017 survey. "This is up from 23.5 million porch thefts uncovered in our 2015 survey on the same topic."

Packages sit on a porch in front of a home.

Porch pirates are something nearly half of Americans worry about. Image source: Getty Images.

How we're battling porch pirates

Porch piracy is on the rise in large part because it's such a simple crime to commit, and the odds of getting caught in the act are fairly low. Organized criminals may target a neighborhood and make off with a lot of items in a single sweep. Less ambitious thieves may simply swipe unattended boxes that look enticing when they happen to spot them.

While most Americans won't install external cameras and home security systems just to protect their e-commerce deliveries (a course of action that the survey's sponsor would likely suggest), many are taking other steps to protect their deliveries. When asked what strategies they were using to prevent thieves from absconding with their packages, a half dozen came up as popular:

  • Having items delivered to work kept at the post office, or picked up at some other alternate location (38%);
  • Working from home on days when a delivery is expected (22%);
  • Opting to buy some items that could be delivered in-store (27%);
  • Limiting online shopping overall (32%);
  • Installing a do-it-yourself security camera (30%);
  • Leaving a trap (like a dummy package) to attempt to catch the pirates (19%).

The biggest challenge in combating porch piracy is that it's both rampant, and generally a minor crime. Victims may not consider it worth the effort to file a police report over a stolen box containing a sweater or a board game. And even when doorbell-cam video exists of a perpetrator, identifying and catching petty criminals is generally not a major priority for law enforcement. That can change, of course, when whole neighborhoods get hit or if big-ticket items get stolen, but even then, you're unlikely to see your stolen items recovered quickly.

What can you do?

You probably wouldn't leave your wallet on your porch, nor keep your keys in your car with the door unlocked. There may be a few places in this country where folks can still be that casual about protecting their belongings, but most of us have to take at least basic steps to make life harder for would-be thieves.

And in the e-commerce era, that includes making wise choices about what you get delivered.

While some porch pirates are simply out to grab whatever they can, many are more selective, targeting bigger-ticket items. So if you're having a new TV delivered (let's face it, even in an unmarked box, a 50-inch flatscreen is pretty easy to identify), you should probably arrange for someone to be at your home during the delivery window.

Many retailers, Amazon included, provide customers with expected delivery times in their apps and via other means. The major shipping companies do the same. That makes it possible to at least know the day an item is coming so you can take steps to minimize your risk. That could be as extreme as not having something delivered on a day when you won't be available to snag it, or as minor as arranging delivery to an alternate location, or leaving work a little early in order to get home before dark so you can bring those packages inside.

Those who are fortunate enough to have neighbors who are at home during the day may be able to have them hold onto deliveries, or simply show a degree of visible human presence in the neighborhood that would discourage porch pirates. There's no one right answer, but a bit of vigilance can go a long way.

And for the nearly half of Americans who worry about a ruined holiday, this should ease your mind a bit: Most major retailers will ship you a new package if one that it lists as delivered isn't there -- for whatever reason. Amazon asks customers to wait 48 hours before reporting such a loss (because sometimes the issue is a delivery service mistake, or a shipment gets incorrectly reported as delivered), but after that, another box will likely be on its way to your doorstep.

That doesn't entirely excuse you from being watchful: Retailers do track these missing package reports, and if you report items stolen more than occasionally, they may stop sending replacements to you. But if you avoid waiting until the last minute to shop, your gifts will be ready for recipients to unwrap on schedule -- even if they do have to be shipped twice.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.