There’s a new wrinkle in the continuing problem of mail theft in the greater Modesto area: the possibility that a counterfeit key is being used to open cluster mailboxes.
Residents of the Oakridge town-home complex on the 1900 block of Edgebrook Drive in Modesto say they know of three dates since early February that mail has been taken from cluster boxes.
“The biggest telltale sign was that the large doors on the back of boxes were left open,” said Oakridge resident Elizabeth Silveira. “A neighbor and I both went out and thought our box had been crowbarred,” but there was no sign of forced entry.
The mail carrier for the complex told residents it appears that a master key that works on boxes in Modesto and Ceres was used, Silveira said. He said he was surprised the thief didn’t take a few seconds to relock the box to hide his trail, she recalled.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement arm of the Postal Service, is looking into break-ins in the Modesto and Ceres areas to determine if there is a counterfeit key, Postal Inspector Jeff Fitch said. Counterfeit keys have been recovered by investigators in other parts of the state, he said Friday.
“Mere possession of a counterfeit key is a felony,” he said. The theft of mail is punishable by up to five years in prison, Fitch said, while possession of a stolen or reproduced key is punishable by up to 10 years.
Another Edgebrook resident, Barbara Miller, posted on Facebook last week: “We are told by the U.S. Post Office nothing can be done about this because it would cost too much to rekey all the boxes that are affected.”
Not so, Fitch and others with the Postal Service say. A mail-theft story last month in the Santa Monica Daily Press quoted a Postal Service spokesman as saying a statewide effort is underway to replace master locks on cluster boxes with “newer locks that are much more secure and not as easy to counterfeit.”
The Postal Service does not disclose the replacement location or schedule, Richard Maher of the U.S. Postal Service Corporate Communications department told the Daily Press. “We are replacing these as quickly as we can, but again, it’s not going to happen overnight that all of a sudden all the locks are replaced.”
Fitch confirmed there is a high-security lock the Postal Service has been installing in other areas. “Rich is right that we’re not trying to advertise where we’re doing this because we don’t want to wave a red flag in front of the bad guys.”
Fitch spoke Monday with the postal inspector in Stockton who oversees other inspectors in the Modesto area. He said that supervisor plans to personally follow up with the Modesto postmaster about the Oakridge thefts and any other local cases where mail has been stolen without damage to the boxes.
While they’re waiting to hear what will be done and when, some Oakridge residents are being more cautious about their mail, Silveira said. “I put a sign on the mailbox that people need to pick up their mail daily, and give their mail to the carrier,” she said.
For the most part, “they’ll come up prior to when the mailman comes, knowing he’ll be there shortly,” said Silveira, who lives directly across the street from the cluster box. “I’ve noticed more people picking their mail up on a daily basis as opposed to leaving it in the mailbox for a few days.”
Silveira and Miller said they realize the problem is beyond their carrier’s control but have been frustrated by responses to calls to local postal officials and the Postal Inspection Service’s dispatch line.
Miller said she’s been told the most secure answer is to get a post office box. “That’s highly inconvenient for us, and it’s just not the answer,” she said. Their postal carrier suggested that when possible, people use the blue collection boxes outside post offices and along thoroughfares, because they have more secure locks, Miller said.
Oakridge residents have met on the problem and discussed requesting that the Postal Service move the mailbox clusters away from community entrances, Silveira said. “A bunch of us talked about having mail slots put in our garage doors,” she added.
Mail theft is a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The Postal Inspection Service has a standing $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of mail thieves.
In addition to notifying police of the crime, mail theft and stolen mail recovery can be immediately reported on a 24-hour hotline that reaches Postal Inspection Service dispatchers at 877-876-2455.
The key to apprehending the criminals, Fitch told The Bee in December, is “reporting, reporting, reporting.” Communication is crucial both at the time the theft is discovered and when anything stolen results in identity fraud, he said.
Residential security camera footage can be of great help to inspectors, he said. Similarly, reporting signs of identification theft, such as purchases made at a store, can lead to surveillance images of the criminals.
The Turlock Police Department posted on its Facebook page on Feb. 24: “We have been receiving calls from citizens reporting mailboxes in their area have been either damaged or broken into. It’s tax return season, which means important documents are in your mailbox, and we want to make sure you aren’t a victim.”
▪ Pick up your mail on a daily basis
▪ Do not put your outgoing mail in the outgoing slot overnight. It is recommended you either take it directly to the post office or, if you are familiar with when your mail gets delivered, put it out just before they arrive.
▪ Report any suspicious activity to the police by calling 911 for an emergency and 209-668-1200 for a non-emergency
▪ If you have a group mailbox, make sure you pick up your mail immediately. The thieves take your mail and packages but leave your junk mail so you may not realize your mail has been stolen.