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Mail Theft, Check Fraud on the Rise, USPS Warns

Learn how to keep your payments safe as thieves grow more brazen

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Kyrylo Glivin/EyeEm/Getty Images

What began with a $1 payment to her credit card company turned into a loss of $1,000 and months of hassle for Ana Warner, 80.

Still a few days away from receiving her next Social Security check, Warner lost $1,000 from her checking account, which was overdrawn. “I was cleaned out,” she says. While the vast majority of mail sent through the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) — which handles some 129 billion pieces a year — arrives without incident, mail theft and mail carrier robberies are a growing problem around the U.S. It’s causing alarm and drawing more intense scrutiny from law enforcement and particularly the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS).

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In 2021 there were 33,000 reports of incidents involving mail carrier robberies and mail theft, up from 24,000 in 2019, according to the USPIS. The uptick isn’t being fueled by lone thieves and random porch pirates, explains Brendan T. Donahue, Assistant Inspector in Charge at the USPIS Criminal Investigations Group. The most pernicious perpetrators are working for “organized criminal groups that are extremely tech savvy and adept at countering law enforcement techniques,” he says.

For years mail theft was primarily a West Coast problem, prevalent in cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, Donahue notes, but the USPIS has recently been seeing more incidents in the eastern U.S., particularly in and around Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; and New York City. There were at least 13 mail carrier robberies in the Greater Washington, D.C., area alone this year from May 23 to July 7 (four of the suspected thieves have since been indicted for mail theft and unlawful possession of USPS keys).

Behind the crime

Sometimes criminals go fishing — not to be confused with “phishing” — a rather old-fashioned (but effective) method in which they’ll attach something sticky to a weighted object tied to a string, drop it into a mail receptacle and reel in their catch.

Thieves will also snatch mail from residential mailboxes that have their flags up for pickup and will break into cluster-mailbox units (the kind you’ll find at many apartment or condo complexes).

More complicated and allowing for higher-volume thefts: Criminals will get their hands on what are known as arrow keys, designed to open multiple mailboxes within a certain area. Arrow keys are often stolen from mail carriers in what can be extremely violent robberies and are sold on the black market for $5,000 to $10,000, according to Donahue. Thieves will then “wash” the stolen checks with a basic household chemical that can dissolve many kinds of ink, says Mark Solomon, vice president of the International Association of Financial Crimes Investigators. This allows them to “make it out to whomever they want, change the dollar amount and forge the customer signature from the check. Sometimes they can even put some superglue over the signature of the check while washing it, to keep the [original] signature.”

Finally, they might recruit people experiencing homelessness or hurting financially to serve as “runners”; their job is to deposit the forged check, then withdraw the money to give to the criminals (minus a cut for themselves).

How to keep your mail secure

The USPIS has outfitted some mailboxes in high-risk areas with anti-fishing devices, preventing criminals from pulling up mail through collection-box slots. The agency is also quietly developing another layer of security to protect mailboxes beyond the arrow keys, says Donahue. But there’s still plenty that consumers can do to lower their risk of mail theft and financial loss. Some tips:

  • Deposit mail in collection boxes as close to the indicated pickup time as possible — or bring it inside the post office for mailing.
  • If you choose to leave outgoing mail in your mailbox, don’t put up the flag.
  • Try not to leave incoming or outgoing mail sitting in your mailbox for an extended time, particularly overnight.
  • Sign up for Informed Delivery. With this free service, the USPS will email you images of everything that will be delivered to your home that day, so you’ll know what to expect (and what’s missing when the carrier drops off your mail). Some 44 million postal customers have signed up. “It’s an added security benefit that many people have not heard about,” says Donahue.  
  • Use the USPS Hold Mail service (you can sign up online) if you’ll be away from home, or have a neighbor collect your mail.
  • Keep an eye on your bank accounts for potential fraud, and report suspicious activity as soon as possible.
  • When making out a check, write out the amount — “One hundred and twenty dollars and ten cents,” for example — so the words fill out the line. This makes it more difficult for someone to alter it without washing off the ink. Also make sure the numeric amount fills the box on the far-right side of the check.
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If you think your mail has been stolen

  1. Report suspected mail losses to the USPIS, which uses such reports to identify problem areas and where to focus crime investigations, at uspis.gov/report, or by calling 877-876-2455. The agency is offering a $10,000 reward for information and services leading to the arrest and conviction of persons responsible for “theft, possession, destruction or obstruction of mail.”   
  2. Notify your bank. If you’re a victim of check fraud, “you’re usually not held responsible,” says Solomon. “Most of your financial institutions will make you whole.”
  3. Report the theft to local law enforcement so you’ll have a police report documenting the crime.

Even if you follow the proper reporting procedures, it can be extremely inconvenient to get your money back, Solomon notes, particularly when “sometimes people don’t realize for a long period of time that the checks have been stolen. It might be a month before you find out your mortgage check was never received by your financial institution.”

Ana Warner would agree on the inconvenience factor. Her attempt to recoup her $1,000 turned into a monthslong ordeal. She started by reporting the theft to the manager at her bank’s local branch, who told her, “It’s not our fault. You signed the check.” She then reached out to Wells Fargo, the bank that issued her credit card, the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Communications Commission — anyone she thought might help. “You have no idea how many letters I wrote,” she says.   

Eight months later, in July, Warner’s bank finally reimbursed her for the loss. “It took a lot of work and a lot of stress on my part,” she adds, “and a lot of people told me, ‘Let it go. Let it go.’ But I told them, ‘No. I’m not going to let it go. It’s not fair.’ ”