Thieves are breaking into blue U.S. Postal Service collection boxes across Philadelphia, stealing mail and checks, costing victims thousands of dollars, law enforcement officials say.
The thieves have been stealing checks, forging signatures, and amassing personal information from the mail to commit identity theft, according to interviews with victims, Philadelphia police, and postal sources. Of the more than a dozen victims The Inquirer has interviewed, the total funds stolen over the last three months amounts to at least $100,000. Multiple individuals had more than $15,000 stolen.
The speed and breadth at which the thieves are compromising the mail, and the lack of any physical damage to the structures, suggests they may have keys to the boxes, law enforcement and postal experts say.
The break-ins call into question the security of the iconic blue boxes, which residents use to mail everything from checks and confidential records to election ballots. (Officials said there is no evidence that any ballots were stolen or affected.)
The ongoing vulnerability points to a systemic failure by the Postal Service to oversee the keys that open up the boxes. Union leaders say short-staffed post offices are failing to consistently follow fundamental accountability protocols, and a recent audit report called the agency’s oversight “irresponsible.”
“If you look at each case individually, it doesn’t seem like such a big crime or such a big deal,” said Miriam Rocah, district attorney for New York’s Westchester County, which saw a similar outbreak of mail theft and check fraud in 2018. “But when you start putting them all together across a geographical region … you all of the sudden have something that’s having a really widespread impact on communities, and the case itself becomes more serious.”
The Postal Inspection Service, though acknowledging the recent theft, encouraged residents to be proactive with checking their bank accounts, and not deposit mail into the boxes after it’s been collected for the day.
“Over the last several months, the Postal Inspection Service has received a number of complaints of mail theft from residents of several West Philadelphia neighborhoods,” said George Clark, public information officer for the Postal Inspection Service, in a statement. “Inspectors are currently developing leads from those complaints with the goal of identifying the individual or individuals who are apparently targeting the mail.”
Clark initially declined to say how many theft complaints have been filed, and then said he did not have access to the data. In December, The Inquirer submitted a Freedom of Information Act request on theft complaints, but the agency has yet to fulfill it. An NBC News investigation found that the Postal Inspection Service also does not have a reliable system to track mail theft. Many Philly residents who reported theft to the Postal Inspection Service never heard back.
‘Who does this kind of thing?’
Since November, the thieves have particularly targeted West Philadelphia mailboxes, on the hunt for checks. They often dip them in acetone to wash off the ink, then change the name and increase the amount, an investigator said. They go to banks or ATMs and withdraw cash, or deposit them into a burner account.
A Southwest Philadelphia detective, who asked not to be named, said more than 20 people — from City Line Avenue to the Schuylkill — have filed complaints about their checks being stolen and forged in the last two months. The common thread, he said, was that the victims had all put their check into a mailbox.
Three people were arrested, but only one person has been charged in connection with the check fraud, Philadelphia police said. It’s unclear what the person’s role was in the scheme, but the theft continued after her arrest. Previous investigations show it’s likely there are many different groups working across the area.
The Inquirer identified at least 10 people who said they had checks stolen from a mailbox at 46th and Larchwood Streets, in West Philadelphia. Bryant Simon, 59, had $6,900 stolen from two separate bank accounts. Al Filreis, 64, lost $10,686.
The thieves withdrew more than $15,000 from Michael Parisi’s account after they used the check’s bank account information to create a fake driver’s license and bank card in Parisi’s name.
Ian Abrams, 65, almost lost more than $15,000 after the thieves duplicated a check he dropped into the box at 51st Street and Chester Avenue. The bank stopped payment before it went through.
“I know that it’s hard times out here for everybody. But who does this kind of thing?” said Maryann Muhammad, 75, of Kingsessing, whose $25 charity donation became a $1,800 withdrawal.
Plus, the ease with which criminals are able to fraudulently cash checks has called bank security measures into question. In some cases, thieves cash checks made out to someone else.
Michael Hallman dropped a $6,290 check for his new landlord into the mailbox at 21st and Walnut Streets on Nov. 2. Two days later, a person endorsing the check with a scribble, but changing nothing else, cashed it at a Santander Bank. Nearly three months later, Chase Bank has yet to reimburse Hallman, 43.
“It’s been an absolute nightmare,” he said.
Banks across the city have had customers impacted by the theft, but most declined to provide information on their security procedures or investigations, citing security and privacy concerns.
While rare, mail theft has been an issue since the creation of the USPS, and counties across the country have reported similar check fraud schemes.
Sometimes the thieves attach glue traps to the ends of string to “fish” letters out of the boxes’ small opening. Now, as the Postal Service has made the openings smaller, thieves have prioritized obtaining keys.
One key, formally called an arrow key, opens up every corner collection box and apartment mailbox for a zip code, postal workers said.
“It is a master key that’s good for a specific area or region. It has some universality to it, so you’d see the attraction to thieves,” said Philip Rubio, a history professor at North Carolina A&T State University, who worked as a letter carrier for 20 years.
Carriers must sign their keys out and in each day. The agency’s use of universal collection box locks and keys dates back to the 1870s and has been “surprisingly secure and successful over the years as long as there is a system of accountability,” Rubio said.
But that system has deteriorated as short-staffed employees, to save time, don’t always follow the protocol for tracking a key, said Nick Casselli, president of APWU Local 89.
Casselli said that in spring 2020, an employee at the Bustleton post office stole a key and gave it to her boyfriend, who began stealing from mailboxes. He said the postal inspectors caught her shortly after and she was fired.
“I thought that was an isolated incident,” he said.
“The number of arrow keys in circulation is unknown, and local units did not adequately report lost, stolen, or broken keys or maintain key inventories,” the report said. “Ineffective controls over arrow keys increases the risk that these items will be lost or stolen and not detected.”
Some postal workers have taken advantage of the lack of oversight. In Westchester, N.Y., the mail theft investigation found that some carriers were selling arrow keys for upward of $1,000, said Stefanie DeNise, assistant district attorney of Westchester County’s Identity Theft Unit.
Once people have the keys, they make and sell copies. Thieves also target carriers and rob them of their keys, DeNise said.
In Westchester, once the Postal Inspection Service replaced the county’s mailboxes in early 2019, “we saw a complete stop in mail theft from the blue boxes,” DeNise said.
DeNise’s office charged about 25 people in connection to the cases, she said.