GREENFIELD — Nobody wants disappointment for Christmas.

Officials with the U.S. Postal Service are encouraging residents to take advantage of an online mail-tracking service that gives users a peek at their daily mail before it arrives at their doorstep, ensuring they know what packages and letters that will arrive that day and protecting against potential theft.

It’s a recently added free service the post office hopes will give its customers an extra level of security this holiday season — the time of year when police say criminals are out scouring neighborhoods for packages left on porches.

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The postal service’s Informed Delivery System sends residents a picture of the envelopes and postcards that will arrive in their mailbox that day, along with email and text notifications about packages that are being delivered.

Users will then know immediately if a card or package is missing from the queue, said Mary Dando, a spokeswoman for the postal service. They can notify their post office, which can then help determine if a mistake was made or if the police need to get involved, she said.

Nearly 18 billion Christmas presents, packages and cards will be processed by the postal service between Thanksgiving and New Years Eve. And without fail, local police will be alerted that some of those items never reached their destination, stolen before they could be joy to a local family, Greenfield Police detective Lt. Randy Ratliff said.

Locally, residents haven’t reported a rash of the gift thefts yet this year; but Ratliff is sure those reports will flood his office before the season is over, he said. But there are ways residents can protect themselves, Ratliff said, and taking advantage of tracking services, like the new one offered by the post office, is one of them.

Dando calls them “porch pirates,” and the U.S. Postal Service’s Informed Delivery System is the newest innovation in a battle postal workers have waged against these thieves with them for years, she said.

The system is quick, easy-to-use and free for all postal service consumers, Dando said. So far, more than 7 million people have signed up to participate, she said.

Residents set up an online profile through USPS.com and are asked a series of security questions to verify their identity and address, ensuring the postal service can protect their privacy and personal information, Dando said.

Then they’ll receive a daily, digital preview of their household’s incoming mail, according to the postal service website. A black and white image of the front, address side of every envelope — never the inside contents — will be posted on the user’s profile or sent to them via email.

The images are automatically saved to on the user’s profile for a week after their set delivery date. If for some reason the letter or card doesn’t arrive, the user can bring the image into the nearest post office. Because it shows all the needed postal codes and routing numbers, postal workers will be able to track it down faster than ever before, Dando said.

And if it turns out it’s been stolen, the user can more quickly contact the police, she said.

Informed Delivery also sends users notifications of all incoming packages via text and email, and then saves the information to their profile for 15 days, the postal service website states — giving them the same power to quickly alert officials to any missing items.

The notifications give residents amply time to get home and collect their mail or make arrangements to have it be picked up by a loved one or friend, Dando said. Users can also communicate with postal service workers to reschedule a delivery time or give special instructions by simply responding to those texts and emails, she said.

Collecting important mail and packages quickly is the only way to ensure it won’t be stolen, Ratliff said.

Last year, for example, three teenagers were arrested days before Christmas Eve and charged after they were caught stealing unattended packages from outside homes in Hancock County, police said.

They took packages off the front porch, opened and rifled through them, stealing the items they found most interesting before dumping the remainder on the side of the road, police said. Detectives were then left to try to reconnect residents with the electronics, gift cards, clothing items and toys that had been taken from them.

It was a concerned neighbor who alerted police to the thieves after spotting the teens driving slowly around the neighborhood and peering into friends’ mailboxes, officials said. Forming those good relationships with neighbors who can watch your home or collect your mail for you in a pinch is the best way to ensure it won’t be swiped, Ratliff said.

If you’re mailing checks or gift cards to friends and loved ones this holiday, it’s best to take them straight to a secure post office dropbox, Ratliff said. The little red flag on the mailbox outside your home can be a tip-off for thieves, too, he said.

It’s all about taking the opportunity away from the bad guys, he said.

“It’s the time of year when criminals are out looking for anything they can take,” Ratliff said.

Don't be a victim

Here are some tips to protect your Christmas mail and packages from thieves:

-Take advantage of online tracking systems to monitor when packages are en route to your home.

-Ask neighbors to watch for your deliveries and agree to secure their packages, too.

– Be watchful for any strangers going onto neighbors’ porches or following delivery trucks.

-Request a signature upon delivery. By doing this, the sender will have to wait until you are available.

-Schedule a delivery and have packages brought to your home at a time and date that works for you.

-Provide special instructions for where to place delivered packages out of sight from the road.

Source: Greenfield Police Department

When to mail

The U.S. Postal Service delivers nearly 18 billion cards, letters and packages between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. To ensure your gifts arrives in time for Christmas, following these mailing deadlines:

Standard post — Dec. 14

First-class mail — Dec. 19

Priority mail — Dec. 20

Priority mail express — Dec. 22

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.