Small Business

AI is policing the package theft beat for UPS as ‘porch piracy’ surge continues across U.S.

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A doorbell camera in Chesterfield, Virginia, recently caught a man snatching a box containing a $1,600 new iPad from the arms of a FedEx delivery driver. Barely a day goes by without a similar report. Package theft, often referred to as “porch piracy,” is a big crime business.

While the price tag of any single stolen package isn’t extreme — a study by Security.org found that the median value of stolen merchandise was $50 in 2022 — the absolute level of package theft is high and rising. In 2022, 260 million delivered packages were stolen, according to home security consultant SafeWise, up from 210 million packages the year before. All in all, it estimated that 79% of Americans were victims of porch pirates last year.

In response, some of the big logistics companies have introduced technologies and programs designed to stop the crime wave. One of the most recent examples set to soon go into wider deployment came in June from UPS, with its API for Delivery Defense, an AI-powered approach to reducing the risk of delivery theft. The UPS tech uses historic data and machine learning algorithms to assign each location a “delivery confidence score,” which is rated on a one to 1,000 scale.

“If we have a score of 1,000 to an address that means that we’re highly confident that that package is going to get delivered,” said Mark Robinson, president of UPS Capital. “At the other end of the scale, like 100 … would be one of those addresses where it would be most likely to happen, some sort of loss at the delivery point,” Robinson said.

Powered by artificial intelligence, UPS’s Delivery Defense analyzes address characteristics and generates a ‘Delivery Confidence Score’ for each address. If the address produced a low score, then a package recipient can then recommend in-store collection or a UPS pick-up point. 

The initial version was designed to integrate with the existing software of major retailers through the API —a beta test has been run with Costco Wholesale in Colorado. The company declined to provide information related to the Costco collaboration. Costco did not return a request for comment.

Delivery Defense, said Robinson, is “a decent way for merchants to help make better decisions about how to ship packages to their recipients.”

To meet the needs of more merchants, a web-based version is being launched for small- and medium-sized businesses on Oct. 18, just in time for peak holiday shipping season.

UPS says the decision about delivery options made to mitigate potential issues and enhance the customer experience will ultimately rest with the individual merchant, who will decide whether and how to address any delivery risk, including, for example, insuring the shipment or shipping to a store location for pickup.

UPS already offers its Access Points program, which lets consumers have packages shipped to Michaels and CVS locations to ensure safe deliveries.

How Amazon, Fedex, DHL attempt to prevent theft

UPS isn’t alone in fighting porch piracy.

Among logistics competitors, DHL relies on one of the oldest methods of all — a “signature first” approach to deliveries in which delivery personnel are required to knock on the recipient’s door or ring the doorbell to obtain a signature to deliver a package. DHL customers can opt to have shipments left at their door without a signature, and in such cases, the deliverer takes a photo of the shipment to provide proof for delivery. A FedEx rep said that the company offers its own picture proof of delivery and FedEx Delivery Manager, which lets customers customize their delivery preferences, manage delivery times and locations, redirect packages to a retail location and place holds on packages.

Amazon has several features to help ensure that packages arrive safely, such as its two- to four-hour estimated delivery window “to help customers plan their day,” said an Amazon spokesperson. Amazon also offers photo-on delivery, which offers visual delivery confirmation and key-in-garage Delivery, which lets eligible Amazon Prime members receive deliveries in their garage.

Debate over doorbell cameras

Amazon has also been known for its attempts to use new technology to help prevent piracy, including its Ring doorbell cameras — the gadget maker’s parent company was acquired by the retail giant in 2018 for a reported $1 billion.

Camera images can be important when filing police reports, according to Courtney Klosterman, director of communications for insurer Hippo. But the technology has done little to slow porch piracy, according to some experts who have studied its usage.

“I don’t personally think it really prevents a lot of porch piracy,” said Ben Stickle, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University and an expert on package theft.

Recent consumer experiences, including the iPad theft example in Virginia, suggest criminals may not fear the camera. Last month, Julie Litvin, a pregnant woman in Central Islip, N.Y., watched thieves make off with more than 10 packages, so she installed a doorbell camera. She quickly got footage of a woman stealing a package from her doorway after that. She filed a police report, but said her building’s management company didn’t seem interested in providing much help.

Stickle cited a study he conducted in 2018 that showed that only about 5% of thieves made an effort to hide their identity from the cameras. “A lot of thieves, when they walked up and saw the camera, would simply look at it, take the package and walk away anyway,” he said. 

SafeWise data shows that six in 10 people said they’d had packages stolen in 2022. Rebecca Edwards, security expert for SafeWise, said this reality reinforces the view that cameras don’t stop theft. “I don’t think that cameras in general are a deterrent anymore,” Edwards said.

The best delivery crime prevention methods

The increase in packages being delivered has made them more enticing to thieves. “I think it’s been on the rise since the pandemic, because we all got a lot more packages,” she said. “It’s a crime of opportunity, the opportunity has become so much bigger.”

Edwards said that the two most-effective measures consumers can take to thwart theft are requiring a signature to leave a package and dropping the package in a secure location, like a locker.

Large lockboxes start at around $70 and for the most sophisticated can run into the thousands of dollars.

Stickle recommends a lockbox to protect your packages. “Sometimes people will call and say ‘Well, could someone break in the box? Well, yeah, potentially,” Stickle said. “But if they don’t see the item, they’re probably not going to walk up to your house to try and steal it.”

There is always the option of leaning on your neighbors to watch your doorstep and occasionally sign for items. Even some local police departments are willing to hold packages.

The UPS AI comes at a time of concerns about rapid deployment of artificial intelligence, and potential bias in algorithms.

UPS says that Delivery Defense relies on a dataset derived from two years’ worth of domestic UPS data, encompassing an extensive sample of billions of delivery data points. Data fairness, a UPS spokeswoman said, was built into the model, with a focus “exclusively on delivery characteristics,” rather than on any individual data. For example, in a given area, one apartment complex has a secure mailroom with a lockbox and chain of custody, while a neighboring complex lacks such safeguards, making it more prone to package loss.

But the UPS AI is not free. The API starts at $3,000 per month. For the broader universe of small businesses that are being offered the web version in October, a subscription service will be charged monthly starting at $99, with a variety of other pricing options for larger customers.

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