Crime

Federal and local officials meet in Modesto to combat mail theft

The post office on Kearney Avenue in Modesto has been the victim of mail theft, too. Boxes at the Sylvan and Kearney avenue post offices have been removed because they were broken into, the Modesto postmaster says.
The post office on Kearney Avenue in Modesto has been the victim of mail theft, too. Boxes at the Sylvan and Kearney avenue post offices have been removed because they were broken into, the Modesto postmaster says. jwestberg@modbee.com

A Postal Inspection Service agent said it a couple of times Friday morning at a meeting about mail theft: “We’re not going to arrest our way out of this.”

Similarly, after talking about obstacles to prosecution and punishment – including Assembly Bill 109 realignment and Proposition 47 – Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager said, “I honestly don’t know that we can fix the problem if we don’t have the deterrent. It may be much more useful, then, to educate citizens.”

Around a table in a conference room on the sixth floor of Tenth Street Place, federal and local officials gathered to talk about the epidemic of mail theft in the Valley and state, the challenges of apprehending and prosecuting those responsible and what steps are being taken to protect Postal Service customers.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, and several of his staff were there because he wanted to be able to tell constituents how to safeguard themselves and – if they are victimized – what they can do to help investigators. Among others present were Modesto Mayor Ted Brandvold, Modesto Postmaster Jennifer Gowans and sheriff’s Detective Robert Berndt.

Some of the things that happen are even when a police department or sheriff’s department arrests them, with Prop. 47, if the value is not over $950, it’s a citation or catch and release, And now we’re having to build up the pieces again to build up a stronger case to present to the district attorney’s office.

Rafael Nunez, U.S. Postal Inspection Service

Fielding most of the questions were Special Agent in Charge Rafael Nunez from the San Francisco Division of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and Postal Inspector Mack Gadsen Jr. of the division’s Stockton office.

Mail theft, specifically keeping cluster mailboxes secure, is one of the service’s biggest challenges, Nunez said, and California is a hotbed for the crime. “So our approach is educating our customers.” Through news, social media and its own web pages, the service reminds customers to pick up mail on time, be home to receive a package that has a scheduled arrival time, never leave mail in the box overnight, and have mail delivery held or mail picked up by a trusted neighbor when away.

Newer neighborhoods with centralized delivery at cluster mailboxes are heavily targeted, Nunez said. Thieves gain entry by prying or smashing boxes open or in some cases by making counterfeit keys. The Postal Service is in the process of replacing boxes up and down the state, Nunez said. “We’re trying to build better, stronger boxes that are not easily compromised” rather than just patching up boxes that have been damaged, he said.

​Proposition 47, the ballot initiative passed by California voters on Nov. 4, 2014, reduces certain drug possession felonies to misdemeanors. It also requires misdemeanor sentencing for petty theft, receiving stolen property and forging/writing bad checks when the amount involved is $950 or less.

He acknowledged that “hardening the targets” will push thieves onto other things, including non-locking mailboxes, but upgrading the clusters is a priority, Nunez said.

Gowans said a neighborhood with individual mailboxes could move to a locked cluster box if all the residents signed an agreement to do so and someone offered the spot of property to place it. However, residents who have curbside boxes do not have the option of switching to a more secure box on a porch or to a door slot, she said.

Anyone can upgrade from a simple nonlocking mailbox to a more secure locking one, Gowans said. A victim of mail theft herself, she invested in a locking mailbox that cost a few hundred dollars. While the Postal Service pays to replace and repair cluster boxes, residents with individual boxes foot the bill themselves, she said.

And it’s not just neighborhood boxes being struck, Gowans said. So, too, are the blue drop boxes along bigger streets, and even those outside post offices. Boxes at the Sylvan and Kearney avenue post offices have been removed because they were broken into, she said. Thieves are brazen and creative, Gowans said, “stealing the whole box if necessary.”

Each key opens dozen of boxes – they can loot communities with one key. They just open the box and empty everything into a garbage bag. ... Sometimes we don’t find out until identity theft is committed, weeks or months later.

Stanislaus County sheriff’s Detective Robert Berndt, on counterfeit keys used to open cluster boxes

Making off with the whole box is the last resort. “Usually they can get into them within a couple of minutes with pry bars and crowbars, and they damage the boxes beyond repair. We’ve been replacing them as we can, but they’ve damaged so many lately.”

The apprehension and prosecution of mail thieves is hampered at several turns.

In most cases, they’re not caught in the act, Fladager said. If they’re found with mail, it’s possession of stolen property, which is a misdemeanor unless the value of the mail exceeds $950, she said. Even when a felony mail theft conviction is made, she said, AB 109 dictates that the inmate will do time only in county jail, not state prison. Ditto for identity theft, the DA said.

“So people stealing mail know it’s likely going to be a misdemeanor, and when it is a felony, ‘they can’t send me to state prison, I’ll just do my time in a county jail,’ ” she said. “So the deterrent factor is almost nonexistent.”

Another problem is that mail theft is a transient crime, with suspects working up and down the Highway 99 corridor, Nunez said.

Assembly Bill 109 – the 2011 Public Safety Realignment law – mandates that individuals sentenced for nonserious, nonviolent and nonsex offenses will serve their sentences in county jails instead of state prison.

Gadsen offered a glimpse of how it works. Drug addicts steal mail, knowing there’s a way to fence it. They may get $25 to $30 for a grocery sack full of mail, or even be paid in methamphetamine.

“You sell that to somebody, they open it, get the checks out,” he said. “There’s another line where somebody is buying those checks, then another group able to get homeless people, drug addicts to cash those checks. … Those are the connections we need to be making to solidify the case we’re presenting to the DA or the U.S. attorney’s office.”

Many times, check cashers have no idea who stole the mail, Gadsen said. But when those connections can be made, there can be federal prosecution of conspiracy. Such was a case in Bakersfield, but it was eight to nine months in the making and took a lot of investigation, he said.

Fladager noted that the U.S. attorney’s office for this district is thin on lawyers and very picky about the cases it takes. Nunez said there have been successes when cases involve an organized theft ring with a large amount of mail or counterfeit keys. “The U.S. attorneys been very receptive about receiving those cases for prosecution and we’ve had a lot of luck. But again, it takes a large amount of mail theft and large amount of damage.”

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.

▪ 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).

▪ Learn more at https://postalinspectors.uspis.gov.

Source: U.S. Postal Service

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