Brooklyn Boro

Amid rise in package theft, a new service relies on the kindness of neighbors

Pickups connects online shoppers in Williamsburg with neighbors willing to hold on to their deliveries, keeping them safe from doorstep thieves.

December 13, 2019 Michael Stahl
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The holiday season is all about giving and receiving — and, in New York City lately, thieving. As online shopping continues to flourish, package theft has reached unfortunate new heights. 

With e-commerce retailers and package carriers offering little recourse, package theft is a growing source of frustration for residents; citywide, 90,000 packages disappear every day, according to the New York Times. One technology company that launched its services a few months ago in Williamsburg is looking to solve the problem. 

Founded by Gabriel Cepeda, a 23-year-old New Jersey resident, Pickups matches online shoppers with neighbors who are willing to store their package deliveries in their homes for a fee.

Shoppers download the Pickups Google Chrome extension, coded to interact with 150 online retailers, including Walmart and Amazon, and fill out a form that includes their location and when they’d like to retrieve their packages. At checkout, the extension automatically fills in the shipping address to a neighbor who’s registered with the service, ready to hold on to the delivery once it arrives at their residence. 

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The service costs shoppers $5.99 per order. The vetted neighbors get between $3 and $5 for each pickup — supplementary income for the freelancers, elderly people and military veterans who make up the bulk of the receivers. A subscription service, costing about $10 to $15 a month for unlimited pickups, will be rolled out soon.

Pickups founder Gabriel Cepeda. Photo: Gabriel Cepeda

Cepeda, who grew up in Washington Heights, has been the victim of package theft himself — more than once. He lost some valuable items, including a pair of pricey headphones, he said. The violations inspired him to found Pickups. 

“Everybody knows between the hours of 12 to 3 o’clock, FedEx trucks, DHL trucks, UPS trucks are on the move, and they’re making deliveries,” Cepeda told the Eagle. “People think it’s something where, like, packages are left for days [and then stolen]. Usually it’s dropped off and picked up [by thieves] several minutes later because there are people watching these deliveries.”

Cepeda decided to launch Pickups in Brooklyn because, upon visiting relatives who live in the borough, including his grandmother, he noticed vestibules, hallways and lobbies overflowing with packages, so much that delivery people would simply leave them out on the street, begging to be snatched up.

Williamsburg seemed the logical place to start. There is just one post office in the neighborhood — arguably two, depending on the boundaries one subscribes to — serving the area’s 150,000 residents. Cepeda hopes Pickups will eventually expand into Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens, skipping the less-dense Staten Island, at least at first. 

“Potential customers, potential neighbors, have given us feedback like, ‘Wow, I need this,’” Cepeda said. “People have been asking, ‘When are you coming to the Bronx?’ ‘When are you coming to Queens?’ ‘When are you hitting Orlando, Florida?’ … It just goes to show you how big of a problem [package theft] is.”

In the short term, he said residents in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Greenpoint can look forward to their own neighborhood launches soon. Those areas have garnered more prospective receivers than elsewhere, and Cepeda said it doesn’t make sense for Pickups to offer its service in a neighborhood if not enough people want to store deliveries.

The NYPD does not maintain data on package theft explicitly, so the extent of the trend is not entirely known. Instead, police designate the crime as one of grand larceny, if the package is valued at more than $1,000, or petit larceny, if it’s valued below that figure.

When asked what steps the NYPD is taking to prevent, combat or deal with package theft in any way, and what advice the department has for residents who do not want to be victimized, a representative referred the Eagle to a tweet from the Midtown South precinct, providing citizens with advice on how to deter package theft. The steps include shipment tracking, choosing a shipping option that requires a signature upon delivery, scheduling packages to arrive when shoppers expect to be home, shipping packages to workplaces, and installing motion-sensor lighting, cameras and package lock boxes. 

The United States Postal Service has its own department of investigations, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, that handles package theft cases. That body also provided the Eagle a list of preventative measures, which include picking up packages at the local post office, signing up for a P.O. box and providing package carriers with customized delivery instructions. 

The Postal Inspection Service also encourages vigilance on the part of residents. “If you notice an unfamiliar vehicle following behind the USPS truck or unknown persons loitering around mailboxes, immediately report the activity to your local police department and then call the U.S. Postal Inspection Service,” a press release said. “The package you save may be your own.”

A representative of the Postal Inspection Service did not wish to reveal their package theft investigative measures, but told the Eagle that during the holiday season its agents are on high alert, particularly in areas where they field multiple complaints, either directly or from a local police department. 

In such scenarios, “Inspectors would start investigating in the hopes of identifying who was actually responsible for stealing the packages and, subsequently, make an arrest,” the representative said. “We hope to bring those individuals to justice.” 

The representative also could not offer statistics on any prospective recent increases in package theft cases, but said, “One report of mail theft is too much for us,” and the growing attention to the issue is in and of itself helpful to the enforcement cause. 

In 2018, 13 billion parcels were shipped in the U.S. At such a rate, and with thieves following conspicuously branded delivery trucks through neighborhoods, grabbing packages almost instantly after they’re dropped off, package theft enforcement is challenging to say the least. 

“It’s extremely difficult to try to get real results when you’re dealing with package theft in any part of the country, mainly because nobody wants to take responsibility, nobody wants to cover the cost,” Cepeda said. “Ultimately, you will get to a point where the majority of the people in one building are getting everything delivered … We’re at the beginning stages of these problems.”

Michael Stahl is a New York-based reporter covering business and technology across the borough. You can find him on Twitter

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