Porch Pirates v the Glitter Bomb – Mark Rober’s Crusade Against the Parcel Thieves

The sad fact about modern society is that most of us are likely to experience having something stolen from us at some point or another. Whilst we can all dream that it might be Margot Robbie or Will Smith responsible for distracting us a la Focus, the reality is like to be far more mundane. Instead, we’re almost certainly going to suffer something being stolen from in front of our house or have our car broken into because we left a bag on display. Most of will never do anything about it other than speak to our insurance company to reclaim what we lost. Mark Rober, though, isn’t just anybody…

Who Is Mark Rober?

Mark Rober
Mark Rober (Countingmagic, Wikipedia)

Raised in the city of Brea in California, Mark Rober became interested in engineering when he was young, creating a pair of goggles that stopped his eyes from getting irritated when he was cutting up onions. He studied Mechanical Engineering at Brigham Young University before gaining a Masters from the University of Southern California. After that, Rober joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and working there between 2004 and 2013. It was whilst he was at NASA that Rober began making YouTube videos, recording his first in October of 2011. In it, he created a Halloween costume that made use of two iPads in order to give the illusion that you could see through his body.

The video received 1.5 million hits in a single day, allowing him to launch a Halloween costume company that used the same method for amazing costumes. His company took in a quarter of a million dollars on its first three weeks of business, with his app-integrated costumes soon appearing in party shops. It was eventually bought by the UK-based Morphsuits. The YouTube videos propelled him into the public consciousness, allowing him to host a TEDx presentation in 2015 and to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live! several times, including being a guest host of the show in the July of 2022 and to work with MrBeast three years prior.

The Battle with the Parcel Thieves

Early in 2018, Mark Rober received an alert to say that a package he had been expecting had been delivered. The package, however, wasn’t where he expected it to be when he got home. That caused him to have a look at his security footage, on which he saw a couple wearing backpacks take the package from his doorstep. He spoke to the police, but was informed that, even with the video evidence, it wasn’t worth their time to look into it. As a result he felt, he said, ‘violated’ and ‘powerless’. Having made a dartboard that could move in order to ensure that you always hit bullseye and equipment that was fitted to the Mars Rover, he realised he could do something himself.

He then spent six months designing a fake package that would shower the thieves with glitter whilst also recording their reaction to the situation that they found themselves in. What followed was a test for his engineering skills, knowing that he had to come up with something that could not only record for a long time, given that he’d never know when the package would be picked up, but also allow the footage to be delivered to him even if the ‘bait package’ was never seen again. The package featured a custom-build circuit board that included an accelerometer that would check a GPS signal if it was moved.

If the GPS said that it had been moved from the porch that it was located on, a signal was sent to the phones to wake up and begin recording. The phones had a wide recording mode and were angled back in order to ensure that they could capture whoever had stolen the package. Along with the four phones, there was also a can of fart spray that released five sprays of a fart smell every 30 seconds. This was done in order to encourage the thieves to discard the package before they realised there were cameras recording them. Even if they didn’t get rid of the package, however, the phones had an LTE plan, allowing the footage to be uploaded to the Cloud.

The final piece of the puzzle was to add a motor that would spin glitter and spread it in all directions, tarnishing the thieves with the stuff. The entire package was hidden inside an Apple Homepod box, which was made in order to still be able to record the thieves. Rober also put shrink-packing around the box and a delivery label in order to make it look like the real deal. When the thief took the package and lifted the box off, two switches would be triggered to tell the circuit board to engage all of the various functions that it had built into it. It didn’t take long before the package was picked up, breaking the geofence that had been set up around it.

The thieves took the package to a parking garage, which Rober tracked it to thanks to the in-built GPS. In the garage, Rober found the discarded package and took it home to upload the videos. The thief, it seemed, was more annoyed about the glitter being sprayed all over his car than the fact that he had not, in fact, been able to steal a HomePod. He did the trick more than once, catching another group of four who were distinctly annoyed by the fart smell. It was a glorious feat of engineering that might just have persuaded some of the nefarious characters who thought they were stealing his good to reconsider their life choices.

Version 2.0

Having had an untold amount of fun covering the thieves in glitter with his original bait package, receiving 25 million views in just one day, Rober decided that he needed to up his game and create a second version of the device. Having sprinkled the original video with references to Home Alone, it was only right that he team up with the star of that film, Macaulay Culkin, in order to improve his design. It kept some of the things that the original package had, including a custom-built circuit board and an accelerometer. That worked the same as it did on the original, telling the phones to start recording when it was moved.

The new device also kept the fart spray, adding a second bottle and changing the scent to be even more disgusting. The biggest difference was a countdown that went from five, after which nothing happened but encouraged the thieves to get rid of it. The package also had fake police chatter, discussing the ‘location’ of the package. The entire thing was hidden inside a Bose headphones box. The package was triggered when the case of it was removed, setting off a magnet that told the circuit board to allow the box of tricks to kick into gear. Rober also sent the packages to various points across the United States of America to volunteers who had written in.

There were some people who took the package not because they wanted to steal it, but because it was a nice thing to do and they wanted to keep it safe for its rightful owner. When that happened, Rober turned up to collect the package and instead of hitting them with glitter and the smell of fart, gave them $400. It didn’t seem as though Macaulay Culkin actually had much involvement in the whole thing, but it was good publicity and helped Rober to get millions of views as well as countless YouTube hits for the video. More importantly, it might have put off a few other package thieves from going about their business in the future.

Version 3.0

Not content with stopping after two iterations of his glitter bomb package, Rober decided to keep making tweaks and upgrades by creating version 3.0. This time the actual housing for the glitter bomb, phones et al. had more of a cyber-truck look to it, complete with a handle that had extra-sticky glue on its underside. It also had two protruding rods that Rober described as the most ‘critical improvements’ over the previous year. The custom-built circuit board also had improvements, including a SIM card that allowed Rober to trigger the functions of the phone and do things such as play sounds that he’d pre-recorded.

The fart spray also got an upgraded, going from the two canisters that were in version 2.0 to four. The smell itself was still just as foul as in the previous iteration, but with added essence of skunk. In addition, red and blue LEDs would light up the room and give the impression that the police were already there, aided by the sound of the police scanner. The rods mentioned earlier slide out when the package is opened, stopping people from being able to put the lid back on and stop the glitter and farts from invading their room. Having had issues with the batteries running low in the past, he also designed a doormat that would allow for wireless charging.

Rober once again asked for help from others, with volunteers asking for the package to be sent to them all around the United States of America. There were still a few good Samaritans who took the box in and called the number on it to let Rober know that it had been left in an unsafe location, so he went to them and gave them a few hundred dollars as a thank you. He also used the opportunity to send a glitter bomb to someone who was scamming people over the phone, intercepting the scam and stopping people from losing tens of thousands of dollars in a scam, which actually turned out to be a much bigger deal.

Version 4.0

It is fair to say that Rober got a taste for what he was doing, not just in creating packages that caused all sorts of problems for the people that stole them but also the number of people that were watching the YouTube videos that he created about them. As a result, he decided to create version 4.0, which had many of the features of the previous versions along with a few other surprises. The first difference was that the lid would shoot off as soon as the package thief attempted to open it, thanks to hall effect sensors and magnets on the box that would trigger eight psi of pressure and fling the box into the air at high speeds.

There was also a car horn added, which went off as if someone was leaning on the horn of a car when the lid popped off. One of the biggest changes came to the glitter cup, which wasn’t just one open thing that sent the glitter out in one go, but rather a two-chambered one that allowed the glitter to be fired three separate times. The fart smell remained, complete with skunk essence, in addition to the phones that recorded it all and allowed for interaction with the thieves. Having seen many packages stolen at night previously, Rober also designed a plant box that could hide the package overnight and force it to be stolen in the day.

The glitter bomb 4.0 was significantly larger than the original, being housed in an Apple Homepod box. The design also kept the blue and red flashing lights, which flashed when opened. In one instance, one of the thieves attempted to sell the package at a pawn shop and was offered $400, but pushed his luck and asked for $500. The pawn shop owner then opened the package and the glitter and fart smell invaded his shop. Rober also left the package in some cars in attempt the catch out people who broke into card and stole things, but that didn’t work out quite as planned as they were stolen without the glitter bomb being set off.

Version 5.0

Five years on and Rober decided he would create the final glitter bomb; at least that was the plan. The design saw the biggest change to date, with a one-litre tank of fart spray being in place. This meant that the box had to be bigger than before, which also allowed for a different method of delivering the glitter. This time, rather than a cup that sprayed the glitter out in close proximity to the box, autonomous drones would lift off and fly around the thief’s house, spraying glitter everywhere they flew. The drones were also programmed to be able to fly to a different area if they sensed someone approaching them to stop them.

Whilst the thieves were distracted by the drones, the box sprays out the fart spray at an increased rate, ensuring that the house would not only be glittery but would also smell disgusting. The package used this time was an Oculus VR goggles set, with a separate box designed for use in a car. Having had problems in previous years, the car box was designed to be triggered remotely, removing the drones as it would be unsafe to have them flying around a car but allowing the fart spray to be launched without the box even having been opened. As the fart spray is triggered, a camera would pop out of the box to film everything.

What transpired was that the boxes were not opened in the car because the thieves were all part of a wider operation who would take what they had stolen to a fence who would pay money for the most valuable things. Not only that, but it seemed as if word of the glitter bombs had got around and so no one was stealing the things that were clearly on display in the backseat of a car, instead looking in the boot to see if anything was there. As a result, Rober re-designed it all to fit into a backpack, losing the cameras but ensuring that the smell of the fart would remain in place for several days after it had been stolen.

Version 6.0

Having seen a steady drop of package thieves and a slow increase of good Samaritans, Rober thought that he was going to stop making the fake package glitter bombs. In a literal sense, he was. Instead of making a glitter bomb package that might stolen from a doorstep, however, he decided to work with a local investigative journalist after his own car was broken into and something stolen from it. With San Fransisco being one of the car break-in capitals of the world, a decision was taken to do one last glitter bomb package in order to try to find out more about who it was that was responsible for stealing things from cars in the area.

The glitter bomb was once again re-designed from the ground up, but this time being aimed specifically at car thieves. Rather than using centrifugal force or drones to spread the glitter, the new bomb used 900 psi of compressed gas to fire both the glitter and the fart spray. The circuit board was still custom-built to do all of the work necessary, including setting off a car horn and triggering the phones to serve as a GPS and play sound. The package this time was a backpack, which also had a laptop in the back of it that wasn’t just a normal backpack. Instead, it had a GPS signal inside it in order to allow it to be tracked when it was stolen.

What soon transpired was that as many as 80% of the people stealing the bags from the cars were just individuals acting on their own, not as part of some sort of gang. Many of them did take their goods to a well-known fencing market in San Francisco, which had actually been reported on two months before by the journalist he was working with. In the end, Rober’s work saw 167 porch thieves covered in glitter and fart spray, as well as 29 car thieves. Around $50,000 was returned to victims of scams and seen five scam call centres shut down, with 53 of the scammers arrested after Rober worked with the authorities.

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