In this department, along with nearly every other in the surrounding area, officers have been responding to an increasing number of reported mail thefts. In nearly all cases, personal checks and billing statements are two items thieves look for most often.
What’s driving this wave is not certain, but it is likely related to more people being out of work and drug users who are becoming desperate for ways to obtain easy money. Thieves will cruise around rural neighborhoods, easily checking mailboxes for items waiting to be picked up, or monitor the carrier’s delivery schedule and look in mailboxes once the carrier departs. In towns and cities, thieves will use the cover of night to look through mailboxes while the victims are sleeping.
Thieves are often looking for outgoing mail containing checks that residents have placed in the mailbox for delivery. For instance, residents who send checks to pay monthly utility or credit card bills. In these cases, a thief can simply take one’s personal check, remove the ink using common household chemicals and rewrite his/her name on it while possibly altering the amount. Criminals have become skilled in altering checks to make them appear original. Acts where checks are altered constitute forgery. Most banks have steps in place to prevent this, but it’s not foolproof.
In one case I investigated, an elderly male made a payment on his credit card bill and placed the check in his rural mailbox for the carrier to pick up. The male was only made aware of the check having been stolen several weeks later when he received the next statement and saw it included an overdue amount of what he believed was already paid. The victim contacted his local bank branch and learned the check for the credit card company had been cashed at another branch. An investigation discovered the check’s recipient name was changed and the amount had been doubled. The offender was never identified.
In another case, a rural resident placed 14 checks in his mailbox after paying his monthly bills. All were stolen. Fortunately, the resident noticed the mailbox door was left open the following day and knew the carrier had not yet been to his residence. The resident contacted his bank immediately and stopped payment on all the checks. Had he not noticed the open door to his mailbox, he might have had large sums of money stolen from any number of his checks being altered.
Even if thieves don’t alter the checks and try cashing them, the account and routing numbers printed on the checks can be useful. Someone can use these two numbers to print forged checks to be presented for cashing. They can also use the numbers to make online payments for their own bills without your knowledge. They may even be able to create new online accounts, in your name, with your address, to purchase merchandise with your funds. And you might not even be aware of the fraudulent activity for an extended period of time. This type of activity constitutes identity theft. Information found on credit card statements and other billings might also be used for opening fraudulent accounts in your name.
There are easy steps to take to prevent becoming a victim of mail theft and identity theft. Avoid leaving mail in the mailbox for any length of time. Ask trustworthy friends or family members to retrieve mail if you’ll be out of town, especially overnight. I would ask you to treat any check you may write and want to place in your mailbox as a signed, blank check. That’s what it can become in the hands of thieves.
Consider taking your mail containing checks directly to the Post Office, or by placing it in the large, blue, depository boxes the U.S. Post Office maintains. An easier option to consider is to move away from the habit of writing checks, especially those for recurring, monthly charges. Most vendors will allow you to set up automatic (ACH) payments, where the funds are removed electronically to pay what is owed, and has become much more secure than writing a check.
Become aware of when statements are sent out or inquire if the company has paperless statements that can be sent to your email. In addition, it’s important to frequently monitor the activity of your bank accounts. Most banking institutions provide online banking. This feature not only allows you to make ACH payments, but gives you the ability to review account activity 24/7. Most banks have apps for this, as well, which gives you easy access from your smart phone.
If you believe your mail was stolen, contact the US Postal Inspection Service at 877-876-2455, or at its website — www.uspis.gov.
Understand that there will always be those out there looking to take advantage of your lapse of good judgement. Your information, and your identity, are valuable assets in the wrong hands. Contact your bank, and those companies with which you do business, and inquire about what steps you can take to prevent becoming a victim.