It’s almost Spring, though it may not seem like it in the Northeast. Here in Seattle it’s nice and sunny, and tax season is upon us.
*Da* Da* DUN*
What does that mean to you? Besides impending quality time with Turbo Tax, juggling deductions, and crossing fingers for refunds, tax season means mail thieves are prowling neighborhoods to get their hands on your mail.
This time of year, unlocked mailboxes offer criminals a wealth of sensitive documents to use in identity theft. Think about it: W2s and social security statements, in addition to the usual bank statements, credit card bills, pre-approved card offers, utility statements, etc., can all be found in the unlocked roadside treasure chest that is the rural mailbox.
Now more than ever, it is important for consumers to use a high security locking mailbox to protect their incoming mail and, by extension, their identity. For more information on the importance of a locking mailbox, check out these insightful articles. In the meantime, here is the latest in mail identity theft to bring us into March 2010:
Alleged mail thieves caught
Glendale News Press – 2/25/10
(GLENDALE, ARIZONA) “Three people were arrested Wednesday for allegedly posing as joggers and stealing $500,000 worth of personal checks from Glendale and Los Angeles mailboxes, police said. Alfred Araza, Jung Kim and Cesar Austria, all of Los Angeles, targeted quiet and affluent Glendale neighborhoods for their runs, during which they used counterfeit keys to break into residential and apartment building mailboxes, Glendale Police Sgt. Tom Lorenz said.
“They were trying to fit into neighborhoods as joggers,” he said. Personal checks from the stolen mail were amended to different amounts and cashed out, resulting in a significant monetary loss for the victims, Lorenz said. Calls made to the U.S. Postal Service and U.S. Postal Inspector’s Office were not returned Thursday.
The joggers were reportedly addicted to methamphetamine and stealing mail to support their habits, Lorenz said. Methamphetamine users, Lorenz said, are often responsible for committing mail thefts.
Since June, at least five residents have reported stolen mail to police and were able to provide descriptions of suspects and vehicles, he said.
Kim was released from custody in January after being arrested on suspicion of mail theft, Lorenz said. But it wasn’t until Financial Crimes Unit detectives began looking into Kim’s connections that the larger mail theft network was discovered. Two other men, including the alleged ringleader, were arrested in Los Angeles.
When detectives put Kim, Araza and Austria under surveillance, they saw the group jogging and stealing mail in Eagle Rock, Lorenz said. Police, along with the U.S. Postal Inspector’s Office and Los Angeles County Probation Department, then obtained warrants and found stolen mail, washed checks and the mailbox keys at their homes, Lorenz said.
The U.S. Postal Inspector’s Office reported more than 6,000 mail theft suspects last year. Portions of California and Texas, along with Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., experience the highest amount of mail theft, according to the agency.
Mail theft carries a maximum five years in prison for every letter stolen, the agency’s spokeswoman Renee Focht said. The agency will present the case to the U.S. attorney’s office for prosecution, she said.
Anyone who believes they were a mail-theft victim can call (877) 876-2455, or submit a report at www. postalinspectors.uspis.gov.”
COMMENTS: There are many studies that show that mail theft is most commonly fueled by methamphetamine use. Addicts can trade sensitive mail (used to commit identity theft) for methamphetamine, or cash to use for drugs. To learn more, check out these interesting articles. The best defense against mail theft is a high security locking mailbox like the Mail Boss. If you are going to spend money on a security locking mailbox, (a wise investment given the epidemic of mail identity theft), it is important to get one made of heavy-gauge steel, and with anti-pry features to secure your mail and protect your identity.
Residents warned of mail theft, check fraud
The Friday Flyer – 2/26/10
(CANYON LAKE, CALIFORNIA) “Corporal Ole Williams of the Canyon Lake Police Department reports an increase in check fraud stemming from mail theft within the gates. He says all deputies have at least one reported theft they are working on but he could not confirm the number of suspects involved. As many as seven Canyon Lake residents have reported up to 12 incidents of check fraud in recent months.
Outgoing mail, mostly checks sent to pay bills, is being stolen from the outgoing mail slot of cluster mailboxes. According to Corporal Williams, the thefts are not from any one particular location and have been reported at various areas in the community. The thieves have been washing the check or using the real routing and account numbers to create checks on their computers with a false name and false ID to make purchases. When the checks are used at a business and run through check machines, the funds are immediately deducted from the victim’s account.
Outgoing mail recommendations
Corporal Williams is recommending residents do not use mail slots in the cluster mailboxes for outgoing mail. At her “Coffee with the Mayor” on Tuesday morning, Mayor Nancy Horton confirmed the City is discouraging residents from using the outgoing slots and suggested they use the official USPS mailboxes at the Main Gate. It’s important to make sure mail drops securely into the mailbox.
Resident Terry O’Rourke, who was in attendance at the mayor’s meeting and is a former Post Office manager, said mailbox thefts were a problem as far back as the 1980s. He recommends not using any of the large USPS mailboxes at night after the last pick-up, as mail is more vulnerable to theft. […]
Preventing and reporting theft
Residents who have experienced a theft are encouraged to report it to the Canyon Lake Police Department’s non-emergency line […]. If a theft is suspected Corporal Williams recommends reporting it to all credit bureaus to flag credit in case something is missing. […]
What’s being done?
There has not been a definitive solution to the problem yet. The Post Office says it won’t replace the cluster mailboxes, according to City Manager Lori Moss. She also says the POA and the City have received conflicting information on the cluster mailboxes and who is responsible for any replacement.
The individual boxes and their locks are the responsibility of the individual homeowners, according to Corporal Williams, who says he has recommended the POA get more of the blue USPS mailboxes for convenience and also so they won’t get full. According to the mayor, General Manager Clint Warrell of the POA is working with the Post Office on a specification for mailboxes. In the meantime, residents are warned to be cautious with their outgoing mail.”
COMMENTS: If outgoing mail is being stolen, more than likely incoming mail is being stolen too. Residents find out about theft of outgoing mail (check fraud) sooner than they find out about theft of incoming mail, which often results in full-blown, pulling your hair out, identity theft. This article gives useful tips for protecting outgoing mail, and I would add when possible, use online bill pay. Online bill payments are always going to be more secure than sending checks through the mail, regardless of what mailbox you use. This article does not, however, state the importance of using a high security locking mailbox to protect incoming mail and prevent mail identity theft. Consider yourself informed!
Mail Theft in Topeka
WIBW – 2/24/10
(TOPEKA, KANSAS) “Your mail may be at risk depending on where you’re placing it. The Topeka Police Department has received multiple reports of mail being stolen directly from mailboxes in Topeka. In some cases these individuals were paying bills with personal checks which is exactly what theives are looking for. Times have certainly changed with thieves resorting to property crime.
The Topeka Police department has had multiple reports of stolen mail… a crime they say is all too easy. If you’ve got mail to send, give it to either carrier, put it in a blue mailbox, or go directly to the post office.
Mail theft is considered a felony and is happening all over the country not just Topeka. Another way to protect yourself is to use gel ink pens when writing your checks this way it will smear and make the check useless.
Financial Crime release from the Topeka Police Department:
[…] A simple solution is to go to Walmart, Office Max, etc. and buy the ball point pens that are specifically made to prevent tampering/removal. If the check is dipped in the solution it only leaves a big smear on the check rendering it useless.
When writing checks, dark colored ‘gel ink’ pens are considered the best. ‘Gel ink’ pens come in a variety of colors, but the dark blues and blacks are the best and hardest of the inks to be ‘washed’ by the criminal. […]”
COMMENTS: See below.
TPD Alerts Citizens to Mailbox Thefts
WIBW 13 – 2/23/10
(TOPEKA, KANSAS) “Topeka Police are putting out an alert to monitor your mailbox. TPD says it’s received several reports of outgoing mail taken from mailboxes. They say, in some cases, the mail in question was a bill payment which included the victim’s personal checks.
TPD says criminals can use a chemical to remove writing from checks and turn them blank, giving them a blank check to write as they please. In some cases, the checks have been used at casinos for thousands of dollars.
TPD suggests people take outgoing mail to a post office, rather than leaving it in their home mailbox. They also say retail stores sell ballpoint pens that are specifically made to prevent tampering or removal. They say dark colored ‘gel ink’ pens are considered the best for writing checks.
Additional tips from the U.S. Postal Service: Use the letter slots at your post office to mail letters, or give them to a letter carrier. Deposit mail in blue collection boxes before the last pick up time that appears on the schedule posted on each box. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox after delivery, especially if you’re expecting checks, credit cards, or other negotiable items. If you won’t be home when the items are expected, ask a trusted friend or neighbor to pick up your mail. Don’t leave it in your mailbox overnight. Don’t send cash in the mail. Ask your bank for “secure” checks that can’t be altered. If you will be away from home for more than three days, ask the Post Office to hold your mail until you return. You can initiate a mail hold at the Post Office or online at USPS.com.
If you believe your mail was stolen, report it immediately to your local postmaster or a Postal Inspector. Postal Inspectors may determine whether your problem is isolated or part of a larger mail theft problem in your neighborhood–and it may help them locate and apprehend the thieves. (also file a report with your local law enforcement agency)
This is the time of year in which tax refund checks will be coming, and mail thefts generally go up. Keeping alert and reporting unusual or suspicious activity may save you or a neighbor from a future theft.”
COMMENTS: This news report primarily speaks to theft of outgoing mail; however, theft of incoming mail is really more of a serious threat. If a criminal steals a check from outgoing mail, he/she can wash it and fraudulently cash it. It generally takes very little time to learn this has happened, and worst case scenario you are out the amount the check was written for (though in most cases the banks will cover it). If a criminal steals multiple sensitive documents from incoming mail, he/she likely has enough information to steal your entire identity, open new credit accounts, and wreak havoc on your good name. Homeowners need to be vigilant about protecting both their outgoing and their incoming mail, and that requires the use of a high security locking mailbox. One last point: we wrote about the pen they refer to in this article here.
Mail theft on the rise in Tehama County
Red Bluff Daily News – 2/23/10
(TEHAMA COUNTY, CALIFORNIA) “Tax season has brought a rash of mail theft to Tehama County, particularly in the countryside. Over the past month, mailboxes have reportedly been damaged or broken into on Highway 99W, Acorn Avenue and Wilcox Road.
Mailbox break-ins typically increase when thieves look to cash in other people’s tax refunds, Sheriff Clay Parker said. As different companies use different methods for returns, some returns can be cashed with little to no identification.
Parker recommended filing taxes online, directly through www.IRS.gov, which can electronically deposit the refund in your bank account instead of mailing it to you. The Web site is secure and poses no risk of identity theft, he said.
Parker suggested checking mail regularly, and said readers should call law enforcement if they see suspicious people or vehicles lingering around mailboxes. Although deputies usually catch a few mail thieves, it can be more effective to take the right precautions, he said.
Sgt. Kevin Busekist, of the Red Bluff Police Department, said mail theft still happens in city limits. Feb. 12, a caller discovered 10 mailboxes had been broken into at the corner of Jefferson Street and Luther Road, according to logs.
But reports of mail theft are usually less frequent in city limits, likely because there are more potential witnesses, Busekist said. Whereas city mailboxes are flanked by windows and passing traffic, country mailboxes are sometimes out of the view of both their owners and neighbors. Busekist advised paying for a Post Office box or using a mailbox with a lock, he said.
COMMENTS: This article makes a few good points. First, mail theft can happen anywhere. Second, a locking mailbox is important for preventing mail identity theft. If you read between the lines, this article also makes a significant third point: not all locking mailboxes are secure. Clearly, the mailboxes that were “broken into” were not truly secure, and did little to prevent mail identity theft. When purchasing a locking mailbox, it is important to verify that the mailbox (1) is made of heavy-gauge steel, (2) cannot be fished by hand, and (3) cannot be easily pried open. There are only a few locking mailboxes that are truly secure, and the Mail Boss is one of them.
Two sentenced on mail theft charges
News Tribune – 2/23/10
(JEFFERSON CITY, MISSOURI) “A Slater man has been sentenced in federal court for his role in a conspiracy to steal mail, bank fraud and identity theft in numerous counties, including Callaway County. […] Roll and co-defendant Justine Elaine Gregory, 32, both pleaded guilty to participating in a conspiracy to steal mail, bank fraud and identity theft. […]
The federal investigation began when the U.S. Postal Inspection Service learned numerous state and local law enforcement agencies had been receiving mail theft and bank fraud complaints throughout Mid-Missouri. In November and December 2007, Roll and Gregory conspired to steal mail from numerous victims in Saline, Pettis, Boone, Cooper, Howard, Platte, Jackson, Johnson, Montgomery, Callaway and Gasconade counties in Missouri, as well as residences in Iowa, Arkansas, Kansas, Illinois and Oklahoma.
They used stolen checks and credit and debit cards to make purchases, and used stolen identity information to create counterfeit checks. […]”
COMMENTS: See below.
Mail theft case nets federal prison time
Columbia Daily Tribune- 2/22/10
(COLUMBIA, MISSOURI) “A Mid-Missouri man was sentenced to more than 14 years in federal prison Friday for his role in a conspiracy that included mail theft, bank fraud and identity theft in several counties, including Boone. […]
The federal investigation began when the U.S. Postal Inspection Service learned that state and local law enforcement agencies had been receiving mail theft and bank fraud complaints throughout Mid-Missouri area.
In 2007, Roll and Gregory conspired to steal mail from victims in 11 counties in Missouri, as well as in five other states. They used stolen checks and credit and debit cards to make purchases and used stolen identity information to create counterfeit checks, the news release said.”
COMMENTS: These kind of stories are a perfect example of why everyone in the United States needs a secure locking mailbox. Mail theft happens everywhere, even in rural areas. Hey you, in Oklahoma! You need a security locking mailbox too! A high quality locked mailbox will protect your sensitive documents from getting into the hands of criminals who would use them fraudulently to commit identity theft. It is a fundamental element of comprehensive identity theft prevention.