When Packages Left on Doorsteps Disappear

Retailers vary in how they handle theft. Customers may not be protected.


Dear Alpha Consumer,

I recently ordered a $1,300, 42-inch LCD television from Costco.com. To my surprise, FedEx dropped it off outside my door, where anyone could have taken it. Is this a normal practice, and would either company have reimbursed me if it had been stolen?

The only way to really know if a company would reimburse you for merchandise stolen off your front porch would be to have that happen, because most retailers shy away from making public promises about what they would do. It's understandable; if consumers were guaranteed a new product when the first one was stolen, that could easily lead to fraudulent reports of thefts. (I don't think I'm being overly pessimistic about shoppers' ethics. The National Retail Federation found that almost 9 percent of holiday returns are fraudulent, costing retailers about $3.7 billion over the holiday season.)

But, in my experience at least, when something is truly stolen—as an L.L. Bean comforter was from my Chicago apartment building in 2003—the company will send you a new one. (L.L. Bean spokeswoman Carolyn Beem says the company deals with such situations on a case-by-case basis and does a little investigating first.)

For its part, FedEx does not assume liability, unless the problem "is a result of our sole negligence," says spokeswoman Sandra Munoz. She suggests that consumers shipping expensive items either ask the retailer to require a signature from someone accepting delivery (which comes with a fee, unless the retailer covers it), pick the item up themselves at a FedEx station, or send the product to an address where someone will be available, such as an office. (In the case of a 42-inch television, only the first option sounds practical, unless you happen to be a body builder.)

Costco declined to comment on its policy, so I can't provide any more specifics on what would have happened in your situation. The executive assistant who answered my call was surprised to learn that FedEx generally would not take responsibility in the case of theft, and suggested that perhaps Costco's vendors would be responsible. So you may want to keep that in mind when considering where to buy your next television.

Companies that deal with expensive merchandise, such as diamond rings in the case of Blue Nile or iPods in the case of Apple, typically require signatures. If you are concerned about an order and the retailer doesn't say it requires a signature, then you can try to request it while checking out (sometimes there is a box for "special handling requests"). But you might be better off calling the retailer, explaining your concerns, and asking the representative what can be done to allay your fears.