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'Tis the Season for Porch Pirates and Christmas Crooks

The holiday season is a time when most of us want nothing more than to bask in the warm glow of family, friends and delicious foods. Unfortunately, this season of joy and generosity also can be punctuated by serious hazards, such as theft, vandalism and an increased risk of fire.

But here’s the good news: These perils are preventable, as long as you understand their severity and know what to look for.

For the 2018 holiday season, insuranceQuotes commissioned an SSRS study that asked 1,000 American adults to recount the frequency of certain holiday hazards, including an increased risk for fires caused by cooking mishaps and candles, the vandalizing of outdoor holiday decorations and the growing threat of thieves swiping deliveries from unattended front porches.

The findings were sobering and serve as a reminder that the holiday season requires an extra dose of diligence and preparation.

For instance, according to the survey, 26.1 million Americans (8 percent) have had a holiday package stolen from a front porch or doorstep. This is up from 25.9 million last year, and 23.5 million in 2015.

What’s more, the survey found that 19.6 million Americans (6 percent) have had their holiday decorations stolen or vandalized.

When it comes to house fires, the survey found that 26.1 million Americans (8 percent) have experienced a holiday-related house fire caused by either kitchen cooking (9.8 million), lit candles (6.5 million), or Christmas tree lights (3.3 million). What’s more, a striking 9.8 million (3 percent) Americans have suffered a holiday decorating-related injury, such as falling off of a ladder while hanging up lights.

“It’s easy — and understandable — to lose sight of the dangers that come from all the festivities surrounding the holidays,” says home security and safety expert Elaine Quigley. “But, ironically, it’s when we’re celebrating and enjoying ourselves that we need to be most diligent about the basics of home safety and security — because that’s when we’re most vulnerable.”

Porch pirate prevention

It used to be, not too long ago, that shopping for holiday gifts online was a fringe retail option reserved for only the most technologically advanced consumers. This is decidedly no longer the case.

According to the retail marketing research firm Shopify, U.S. consumers are expected to spend $123.4 billion in online purchases during the 2018 holiday season — which is a striking jump from $91.2 billion spent just two years prior.

But the added convenience and ubiquity of online shopping has given birth to an entirely new criminal enterprise known as porch piracy.

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“Every holiday season the U.S. Postal Service delivers billions of holiday mail and packages, but the unfortunate reality is that many of those packages wind up being stolen right off the rightful recipients’ doorsteps,” says Brigid Hower, spokesperson for the home security system Ring.com. “With online purchase delivers steadily on the rise and holiday travel fast approaching, the number of package thefts is only expected to increase.”

According to our survey, the problem of porch piracy is already a significant problem, with the number of Americans impacted by this 21st Century crime reaching 26.1 million.

“The holidays are a fun, festive time to celebrate with friends and family. Unfortunately they are also a busy time for criminals,” says Ryland Madison, director of marketing for the home automation and security firm Cox Homelife. “Homes and porches are filled with presents or left empty due to holiday travel. These become prime targets for theft.”

High-tech solutions to package theft

In an effort to address this growing problem, security firms, delivery services, and online retailers have tried to f0ind both low- and high-tech solutions to porch piracy over the past several years.

For instance, a service known as BoxLock provides homeowners with a smart padlock designed to protect deliveries by scanning packages so that delivery drivers can unlock a storage box on the customer’s porch. Only packages addressed to the customer — and that are actually out for delivery that day — will unlock the BoxLock.

There’s also a service called Landport, which is a secured delivery drop box homeowners can install on their porch or stoop. The box is bolted to its location and features an electronic keypad on which a delivery driver enters a unique access code to open the lid.

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“Unfortunately, porch theft is a difficult problem to address,” says Monica Eaton-Cardone, co-founder and COO of the risk-mitigation firm Chargebacks911. “While there are organized groups who engage in this practice, it is most often a crime of convenience; the thief sees a package sitting unattended, and simply grabs it. Delivery confirmation can help by serving as evidence for a transactions dispute, but it doesn’t prevent the root of the issue: the theft.”

Amazon — the country’s largest online retailer  — has also tried coming up with some high-tech security solutions of its own. For instance, last year the e-retail giant unveiled the Amazon Key, which has a fairly simple premise: When a delivery arrives at your house and you’re not home, the courier scans a barcode that sends a request to Amazon’s cloud. If it’s approved Amazon remotely unlocks your door and starts recording video through the online retailer’s Cloud Cam. The delivery is left inside the house, the courier relocks the door, and the customer gets an instant notification that the delivery was just made (accompanied by a short video showing the successful drop off).

The service costs $249.99 and includes the smart lock, camera, and installation.

 

Since its release in mid-2017, the Amazon Key has generated mixed reactions from analysts and tech journalists. Some herald it as a novel approach to solving the porch pirate predicament, while others are skeptical that consumers will be comfortable allowing a stranger access to the home — regardless of the fact that it’s being recorded. 

“When it first came out I thought this was a pretty ambitious idea that wouldn’t be embraced by a lot of people right away,” says attorney Marc Lamber, who specializes in the intersection of cutting-edge technology and personal injury law. “And even more than a year later I think privacy and safety concerns still outweigh the benefits of preventing porch theft. The idea of giving a ‘key’ to your house to a random delivery driver still doesn’t sit well with most people.”

Lamber says consumers are right to be a little skeptical about the Amazon Key at this stage, adding that he can foresee scenarios where the camera does not work and the driver gains entry to your home without you being able to observe what they’re doing. Or perhaps the smart lock does not relock correctly or has a buggy code that grants entry permission to more than one person.

“For the most part, I still think people are going to rely on tried-and-true analogue solutions to this problem right now,” Lamber says. “That means motion sensor lights, asking neighbors to keep an eye out for suspicious activity, and even leaving a sign on the door that tells the delivery person to leave packages by a back door.”

In addition to porch piracy, Americans are also right to be concerned about the safety of their outdoor decorations. According to the insuranceQuotes.com survey, 19.6 million Americans (6 percent) have had their holiday decorations stolen or vandalized. What’s more, 57 percent of those victimized by thieves and vandals (26 million Americans) responded with security measures, including motion detectors on lights (15.1 million), security systems (11 million), automatic timers on lights (10.5 million), video doorbells (7.8 million) and package lock boxes (4.6 million).

“Motion-censored lights are always a good idea, as they will not only alarm intruders while you’re away but can also alert neighbors to see what’s going on at your home,” says Emily Long, security expert with ASecureLife. “As for security systems — homes without them are 300 percent more likely to be broken into or vandalized. Considering one for the holiday season isn’t a bad idea.”

Prevent holiday fire hazards

Sometimes even the most basic home safety measures can be neglected during the frenzied holiday season, and this often leads to a spike in fires caused by myriad holiday mishaps.

For instance, according to the insuranceQuotes study, 26.1 million Americans have experienced a holiday-related house fire caused by either kitchen cooking (9.8 million), lit candles (6.5 million), or Christmas tree lights (3.3 million).

“People don’t realize just how much they increase their risk of fire during the holiday season,” says Robert Trask, an independent insurance agent with Liberty Mutual. “Between lots of extra cooking going on in the kitchen to the extreme danger of various holiday decorations, this is the time homeowners need to be on guard. We always see a spike in claims after the holidays. But it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Here are a few tips for preventing house fires during the holidays:

  • Cook with caution: According to the National Fire Prevention Association, cooking equipment is the leading cause of reported home structure fires. Because built-up grease can ignite in the oven or on the cooktop, it’s important to keep the area clean and dispose of cooled grease in a metal can. Also, be sure to keep your cooking area free of materials like food wrappers or oven mitts, which could quickly catch fire.
  • Deck the halls carefully: While they may seem harmless, two of the most common fire culprits are candles and Christmas trees. Duncanson says that when lighting candles, make sure to keep them in sight and put them out when you leave a room. Make sure the tree is at least three feet away from heat sources and does not block any exits. If it is a real tree, keep it hydrated and dispose of it as soon as needles start to dry and fall. Stick to quality, indoor string lights that don’t show any signs of wear and tear.
  • Prep your fireplace: To be sure, a crackling fireplace is a holiday staple, but make sure to inspect the chimney each season before you use it. “If you see black and flaky creosote deposits, use a wire brush to scrub them away,” says Duncanson. “Use a flashlight to peek inside and make sure there are no loose bricks, blockages, or debris.”
  • Sound the alarm: Be sure you have enough smoke detectors and that they’re installed in the right locations in your home. At a minimum, experts recommend one on each floor and one outside each sleeping area. Replace batteries and test the alarms at least twice a year—monthly is even better—and have a pre-designated area away from the home where family members will gather in the event of a fire.
  • Double check your insurance: Make it a habit to review you homeowners insurance policy and important homeowner documents every year, saving electronic copies in your email files so you can easily access them if the originals or hard copies are destroyed.

The most dangerous time of the year?

The holidays also present an increased risk of injury from both careless decorating and dangerous winter weather. According to the insuranceQuotes.com survey, 9.8 million people have experienced a holiday decorating-related injury. What’s more, 107.8 million have slipped on ice while 45.7 million Americans have experienced a weather-related auto accident during the holidays.

“It’s the holidays, which means people are often rushed,” Trask says. “When you combine this with wacky winter weather, it’s a recipe for increased risk.”

Here are a few tips to stay safe while decking the halls or driving over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house:

  • Check Your Ladders: When stringing lights and decorations, be sure to use a proper ladder that is thoroughly checked for loose screws and broken hinges or rungs, with another person supporting the base.
  • Use the Right Ornaments: Use unbreakable ornaments wherever possible. If you have particularly small or fragile ornaments—or ornaments resembling food—make certain they are out of reach from children and pets to avoid lacerations or choking hazards.
  • Proper Heavy Lifting: Also common during the holidays is back injuries and muscle strain. When lifting heavy items including Christmas trees—which can run from 50 to 70 pounds in many cases—remember to lift with your legs; not your back.
  • Inspect Your Vehicle: According to Nicole Firebaugh, manager at the Illinois-based Preventative Maintenance Repair shop, the holidays are a great time to take stock of your vehicle’s performance and make important repairs before hitting the road. One major step to avoid hazards is to have your car checked by your mechanic ahead of time if you plan to travel,” Firebaugh says. “Take your car to a mechanic a week beforehand, have them find an issue, and repair it before you leave. That’s a lot better than discovering a major problem while you’re on the road.”
  • Be Alert for Other Drivers: According to Dave Delaney, chief marketing officer for Owner Operator Direct, a trucking insurance company, holiday drivers should pay particular attention to the risks posed by other drivers. In addition to the increased prevalence of drunk driving during the holidays, Delaney says it's also important for drivers to recognize that there are high numbers of out-of-town visitors on the road in any given location during the holidays, and these visitors are “way more likely” to be distracted drivers.

“They are unfamiliar with where they are, and they might be more concerned with finding a street or an exit than they are with safe driving,” Delaney says. “We encourage our policyholders to keep a safe following distance from drivers who don't seem to know where they are going, especially if the vehicle makes sudden moves and stops or if the driver is on a cell phone or attempting to read a map or directions.”

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