On Northampton Lane in north Modesto a couple of weeks ago, about 10 pieces of mail lay in the roadway, having been torn open and discarded. The mailing addresses were on Virginia Avenue, a few miles to the south.
It’s not something you see every day, but it’s a sign of something that almost certainly does happen daily: mail theft.
Modesto police and the U.S. Postal Service say there’s been an increase in mail theft recently. “I would say we’ve seen a rise in the last three months,” Modesto Police Department spokeswoman Heather Graves said Thursday. There were 66 reports from Aug. 1 through Oct. 31, she said, compared with 38 in the three-month period before that.
“I think it starts picking up about this time of year and gets progressively more through the holiday season,” she said.
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There’s been a spike in mail theft throughout the Central Valley, from Bakersfield through Fresno, Modesto and up into Stockton and Sacramento, said Jeff Fitch with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement arm of the Postal Service. Individuals and small groups of thieves are targeting different areas, he said.
Some mail thieves are very focused and prepared to break into locked boxes. ... The more sophisticated ones are targeting identities and trying to open bank accounts and credit accounts.
Jeff Fitch, U.S. postal inspector
Mail theft is a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, Fitch said. The key to apprehending the criminals, he said, is “reporting, reporting, reporting.” That communication is crucial both at the time the theft is discovered and when anything stolen results in identity fraud, he said.
Time of essence
People who learn they’ve had mail stolen or find stolen mail should quickly report the crime to police and postal inspectors, Fitch said. “Unfortunately, what sometimes happens is that people will wait (to take in stolen mail) until the next time they go to the post office,” he said.
But most sophisticated mail thieves seek information that helps them with identity theft and credit fraud, so that time gives them a head start on committing the crimes.
Mail theft and stolen mail recovery can be immediately reported on a 24-hour hotline that reaches Postal Inspection Service dispatchers: 877-876-2455. “We work closely with local law enforcement. ... We need to be notified,” Fitch said. “We track what neighborhoods are being hit and focus attention on those areas.
“If mail has been taken and then, say, two to three weeks later you notice a charge or something not yours, immediately contact us again because that information (on where check or credit fraud is being perpetrated) can sometimes lead to suspects” in mail theft. “When you report to us they were operating at a certain department store, there could be video, which makes a difference in investigating the cases.”
The Postal Inspection Service has a standing $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of mail thieves.
While the small amount of mail found on Northampton might have been a quick grab by someone on a bike, thieves most of the time operate from motor vehicles, Fitch said. “Sometimes they’re following letter carriers as they’re making deliveries, so people should notify us if they see something unusual.”
How the criminals dispose of stolen mail “runs the gamut,” Fitch said. They dump it in trash bins, leave it in other people’s mailboxes, leave it on hillsides.
“A lot of times, they have it on them” – either in their vehicles or on their person – when arrested, Graves said. “We find a lot that way.”
How those criminals are arrested also runs the gamut, Fitch said. Some are caught red-handed as they steal mail; others are arrested during identity theft and check or credit-card fraud investigations, which lead back to mail theft.
For the Police Department’s part, Graves said, being found in possession of stolen mail is a misdemeanor, petty theft. “It would be a federal crime for them (the Postal Inspection Service). ... We’re not going to give it a lot of attention, but we do pass it on.”
If a case can be made for identity theft, that’s a more serious charge, she said.
It’s hard to prove the person in receipt of the stolen mail committed the theft, Graves said. “If an officer sees someone breaking into a mailbox, obviously it’s a much clearer case – they could charge the person at that point with mail theft. We’d contact the postmaster immediately.”
Guarding against theft
There’s a lot people can do to avoid becoming victims, Graves and Fitch said.
Don’t leave your outgoing mail in the mailbox, Graves said. Put it in the letter slot at the post office or hand it to a carrier. Pick up your delivered mail promptly, she said, don’t leave it in your mailbox all day or overnight. “Typically, mail theft happens in the early morning or overnight.”
When ordering new checks, have them delivered to your bank for pickup, not your home, Graves said.
“Neighborhood Watch comes in big because you can talk with neighbors and say, ‘I’m expecting a package – can you pick up the package and mail?’ Have that trusting relationship with your neighbors. Report suspicious activity.” Have mail picked up by a neighbor when on vacation, or have it held at the post office, she said.
More and more people have surveillance cameras in front of their homes, Fitch said. Neighbors may have captured images of people who steal mail or packages left on porches.
Historically, the Postal Service hasn’t seen a spike in general mail theft during the holidays, Fitch said, but the theft of parcel deliveries does increase.
People mailing packages should consider insuring them, he said, or requiring recipient signature for delivery. The recipient would have to be home at the time of delivery or go to the post office to pick up the package.
There’s an added cost for such services, Fitch said, “but it’s pennies on the dollar for some of these expensive items people mail.”
Mailboxes that lock, and sometimes are big enough for small packages, provide an extra measure of security. But make sure such a mailbox meets Postal Service specifications, Fitch said. Most sold at hardware and home improvement stores do. “They’ll have something on there that says something like ‘Postal Service approved,’ but still let your post office know you’ve switched to a locking box.”
Nothing is foolproof, though. Skilled and determined thieves sometimes break into those personal locked boxes, as well as the banks of mailboxes that are shared by several residents on certain streets or in apartment complexes, Fitch said.
On Halloween, a bank of mailboxes in the Village I neighborhood in Modesto was broken into, meaning residents have had to drop off and pick up their mail from their local post office until it is fixed.
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327
Protecting your mail
Here’s what you can do to protect your mail from thieves:
▪ Use the letter slots inside your post office for your mail, or hand it to a letter carrier.
▪ Pick up your mail promptly after delivery. Don’t leave it in your mailbox overnight.
▪ If you’re expecting checks, credit cards or other negotiable items, ask a trusted friend or neighbor to pick up your mail.
▪ If you don’t receive a check or other valuable mail you’re expecting, contact the issuing agency immediately.
▪ If you change your address, immediately notify your post office and anyone with whom you do business via the mail.
▪ Don’t send cash in the mail.
▪ Tell your post office when you’ll be out of town, so it can hold your mail until you return.
▪ Report all suspected mail theft to a postal inspector.
▪ Consider starting a neighborhood watch program. By exchanging work and vacation schedules with trusted friends and neighbors, you can watch each other’s mailboxes (as well as homes).
▪ Consult with your local postmaster for the most up-to-date regulations on mailboxes, including the availability of locked centralized or curbside mailboxes.
▪ If you see a mail thief at work, or if you believe your mail was stolen, call police immediately, then call postal inspectors at 877-876-2455 (press 3).
Source: U.S. Postal Service