Thieves think online Christmas shopping makes things easy, too

Posted Dec. 19, 2011, at 5:07 a.m.

WASHINGTON — After some online Christmas shopping, Sonia Zeledon eagerly awaited the arrival of two packages sent to her house in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. When she returned home one day this month, she found the brown boxes delivered, opened and pilfered.

So Zeledon did what many busy people do: She told her friends and neighbors, informed the companies she ordered the packages from — and left the police out of it.

“I figured they were busy doing other things,” she said.

Police are urging people to figure otherwise, hoping they can prevent more holiday thefts.

There is a lot of temptation for criminals this time of year. Packages are dropped off at eye-popping speed: UPS delivers about 300 packages per second the week before Christmas. During its busy season, the company says, volume increases by about 10 million packages a day, offering easy pickings to criminals who can quickly sell the goods on the black market.

Boxes have been disappearing from homes across the Washington area in recent weeks, putting a damper on the holiday season as thieves help themselves to treasures sitting unattended on doorsteps. Some thieves follow delivery trucks to learn which houses have packages, often leaving bulky boxes behind while they make off with the contents.

“These are crimes of opportunity,” said Daniel Hickson, a police commander who is in charge of the police district that includes Capitol Hill.

For people such as Zeledon, 35, seeking a refund or replacement item is often hassle enough. But police insist that taking the extra step of reporting the incident can help them track down thieves.

“We make daily reviews of crime reports in order to recognize crime trends and patterns,” Hickson said. They have stopped would-be thefts, too: Officers recently arrested two men in Zeledon’s neighborhood who were accused of stealing packages.

One man was arrested Monday afternoon as he stole a packaged DVD player from in front of an apartment building, then immediately tried to sell it, police said. A neighbor saw the incident and called police.

In another case, a man ripped open a package on a front porch. Bike patrol officers thought something was amiss and confronted the man, who said that the homeowners were friends of his and he was doing them a favor, Hickson said.

“The officers knocked on the door, and the homeowners said, ‘We don’t know this guy,’ ” Hickson said. The man also had a crack pipe in his pocket, Hickson said, and was charged with attempted theft and possession of drug paraphernalia.

It turned out the package contained fresh flowers.

As for Zeledon, she said she got her money back for her stolen shoes and had a replacement shirt sent to her mother’s house in Florida, where she’ll be spending Christmas. Online shopping is easy and convenient, she said, but it’s not worth the trouble if her merchandise gets stolen.

“I will taper off my online shopping because of it,” Zeledon said. “I don’t want to deal with it.”

Police suggest that customers who are not home during the day have packages sent to a work address or a neighbor who can hold on to them. UPS said the company recently started an online preference program, in which customers can log in and have packages routed to a different address.

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