COLUMBIA — It's time for South Carolina to crack down on thieves who take packages off people's doorstep, says state Rep. Cezar McKnight.

His proposed "Defense Against Porch Pirates Act" would make such thievery a felony, punishable by up to $5,000 and five years in prison.

"It’s a serious problem," said McKnight, D-Kingstree. "We need something to catch the public’s attention and make it known South Carolina takes it seriously."

His bill takes it so seriously, it makes anyone convicted of "package theft" ineligible for either probation or pre-trial intervention, a diversionary program that allows first-time offenders charged with a nonviolent crime to keep their record clean.

McKnight said that's because the theft has the potential of being a "life-altering event," particularly if prescriptions are snatched from a porch.

In rural communities like his, where the closest Walmart is 30 minutes away, many rely on getting their needs through the mail. 

"People think of it as just a Christmas issue — someone’s stolen someone’s new toy — but it’s much more than that," he said. 

No one expects to be a victim, but as people increasingly shop more online, anyone's front steps are easy prey, said Greenville Detective D. Paramore.

"These are crimes of opportunity," he said. "Bad people just happen to be walking through the neighborhood and see a package and boom, it’s gone."

But the crimes are also preventable. Like other law enforcement agencies, Greenville police have used social media to advise residents on ways to avoid being a victim. They include changing the shipping address to a neighbor who will be home or to your workplace — if that's an option — or require a signature for delivery, so the package won't be left when no one's home. 

McKnight said he's never been a victim himself, as he sends all packages to his office.

Complaints about doorway thefts within Greenville city limits have actually declined over the past three years, from 26 in 2016 to 14 this year, according to the department.

Paramore attributes the decrease to the education campaign as well as more people installing cameras that can catch any movement outside their front doors, which the department encourages.

"That's the best way for us to apprehend people. We post it on social media once we get the video," which can identify the culprit and lead to an arrest, he said. "People love looking at video, and they'll watch it over and over. The cost has come down so much, they're easily attainable. It's a huge investigative tool."    

The Berkeley County Sheriff's Department has received nine complaints since Thanksgiving, said Capt. Michael Crumley. 

Last year, the agency began putting decoy packages with GPS tracking devices on people's doorways to try to catch thieves in the act. This holiday season, they used even more "covert surveillance" throughout the county, he said.

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The fake packages failed to net any thieves, but the department was able to return several gifts stolen earlier this month from a home in Goose Creek. The resident's doorbell camera "got a very good picture" of the two who worked as a team — a driver and a snatcher — and a deputy located the car in the Ladson area, Crumley said.  

Statewide, it's difficult to gauge how widespread the problem is or whether it's escalating. Many South Carolina law enforcement agencies don't track complaints or arrests of the grab-and-go crimes.

Under current law, they fall under the broader crime of petit larceny — the same charge for shoplifting or writing a bad check — as long as the goods stolen are worth less than $2,000. The maximum penalty for the misdemeanor is 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Unless someone's caught with a pile of packages, the thief generally gets a small fine before a magistrate, said McKnight, who pre-filed his bill for the upcoming legislative session.

He said he considered making package theft equivalent to first-degree burglary but figured a sentence of 15 years to life is "too harsh."

The chances of the Legislature making the crime punishable by even five years are slim. But McKnight called his bill a warning. 

"People need some confidence that the things they buy, they’ll get."

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.