It finally happened. Someone stole one of our packages before we could go get it.
This is a chronic problem in our area. People have been complaining about it on a daily basis the entire time we’ve lived here. It’s not like we didn’t know it was a thing. It’s even happened in our building before, in a pretty dramatic way.
Earlier this year, pre-COVID, there was a group of young people squatting in the clubhouse of our building. The locks were finally changed in that room and we haven’t seen them around. This may or may not have had something to do with what has happened more recently. A young couple used a key to get into the lobby of our building, stole all the packages, then took the elevator down to the garage, broke into a bunch of cars and stole more stuff, and then finally drove away in a stolen vehicle.
That was a few weeks ago. This is a condo building, and the Board had arranged to have the locks changed, but they were waiting on materials - and last night, it happened again. The only differences are that this time they didn’t steal a car, but they did force open one of the mailboxes, which is a federal crime.
Among the stolen packages was something for me, an anniversary gift: a cardigan sweater for a middle-aged COVID survivor who keeps getting the chills, even in high summer.
Okay, work with me here. Who would even want my frumpy old $34 sweater besides me?
It’s out of stock, too.
This is a minor annoyance for us. It’s not like they stole my antibiotics. That’s not the point.
The point is that package theft is interesting for a lot of reasons.
For people of our social class, petty crime is worse than stupid. There is no object you could steal that could possibly be as valuable as your professional reputation and clean background check. Go to prison and it’s all over - your career, your social network, probably your marriage and your relationship with your kids, and thus your house, retirement, savings, and credit score. You’re done.
For what, though? What could possibly be in these seductive packages?
This is the huge mystery to me. I know from our own orders that these little brown cardboard boxes are full of a lot of inexpensive, random stuff. Volume 5 in a fantasy paperback series. Men’s socks. A parrot toy. A power strip. A case of instant oatmeal. After all these years, surely it’s common knowledge that most deliveries are mundane.
What is the resale value of this stuff? What are the chances that a thief would pick up something they personally found relevant?
I highly doubt the 20-something girl with the glossy waist-length hair from the security video is going to be excited when she opens the package with my missing sweater. Maybe her boyfriend will want to wear it.
Where does it all go?
My husband says they probably throw it all out. Package thieves must spend a lot of energy tearing open boxes and pouches full of stuff they don’t want, hoping for a few categories that they can sell. We can only guess what those might be. Electronics? Prescription narcotics? (Do they even send those through the mail?) Jewelry?
I think he’s wrong. This has been going on in so many cities for so long, there must be an adjacent opportunity.
I’m willing to bet that someone takes all the random junk to... the flea market.
Where else would people go to dig through a weird assortment of towels and dog toys and clothes and housewares?
If I were running that kind of operation, I’d have various kids and elderly relatives opening the packages and sorting and repackaging everything every week.
The thing about package theft is that it’s stochastic. Guaranteed, there are a lot of people who have stolen a package once, when the opportunity struck, only to realize it was a waste of time. The crews who do it regularly only have to change neighborhoods every night and they’re nearly impossible to catch.
Packages on so many doorsteps, day and night, are creating this externality of the appealing opportunity. There are probably dozens or hundreds of people who never would have engaged in petty theft if they hadn’t been walking by at the wrong time. Then there are the organized forces, like the young couple that has hit our building at least twice, hopefully in something other than a Requiem for a Dream scenario. If it weren’t for this widespread availability of doorstep deliveries that they’ve been seeing since they were in grade school, maybe they’d be doing something else.
There is no way this continues for another decade.
Or, will it? My husband has had two bikes stolen since we moved to this area, both from supposedly secure parking garages. Bike theft has probably been a chronic problem since the very invention of the bicycle, which would be over two hundred years. The circle of Hell that is dedicated to bike thieves (the 12th, since you ask) must be pretty full by now.
As a futurist, I often wonder what kind of phase change or technological development would put an end to something that is currently an ordinary part of daily life.
There are a bunch of different things that could happen to put an end to package theft.
The most obvious would be some kind of personalized, secure aspect to the delivery cycle. Either an autonomous delivery bot goes around on a circuit, and the user needs a complicated security key to get the package, or packages are delivered to some kind of coded lockbox. Possibly both. It would be easy to imagine one robot bringing the package to a building, and another taking it inside. Or a drone could drop it off on the roof, which I think is less likely, not that that would stop someone from pitching it to a lot of VCs.
Another obvious way this problem could come to an end would be the advent of inexpensive, reliable 3D printers around the price of a television. People could make their own stuff and the only deliveries would be whatever medium goes into the replicator.
The most likely way would be for package delivery to become prohibitively expensive. Either the fuel costs get too high, or inflation drives up the price of most consumer goods, or fewer people are willing to work in the warehouses and delivery trucks because some other kinds of competing job opportunities become available. Or it simply becomes impossible for consumers to trust that they can ever get their stuff before someone comes along and steals it. The seagull/lobster roll problem.
Another model that might make sense would be to have neighborhood distribution centers around the size and availability of corner stores. In fact that’s almost guaranteed to happen, that wherever the package center was, snacks and drinks would be sold too. These would be like any other convenience store, except that the contents would be more highly personalized.
I remember back to when Amazon only sold books. I also remember thinking it was stupid when they began to branch out and sell other consumer products, like shampoo. And I remember debating whether to buy AMZN at around $600/share - too rich for my blood; I bought AAPL and TSLA instead. Back in the early Nineties, routine package theft was not a problem we thought of, just like social media trolls and cracked phone screens were not problems we thought of.
The interesting thing about futurism is that, while we’ll surely be wrong whenever we try to imagine one specific thing about the future, we’ll also be wrong if we assume that the future will look like today. Package theft is going to quit being a problem one day, but why exactly?
And when? I sure wish I had that sweater.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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