Thieves are stealing checks from USPS collection boxes across Philly — and trying to get mail carriers’ keys
The problem is so pervasive that the Postal Service is in the process of replacing the locks on every collection box in Philadelphia.
Think twice before dropping a check into the blue U.S. Postal Service collection box on your street corner.
Thieves have gotten their hands on the keys that open the signature blue mailboxes across the city, breaking into them, stealing checks, and costing victims thousands of dollars.
“They wait for these people to drop their mail in the boxes, then they go with a key and empty it bone dry,” said Nick Casselli, president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 89.
Earlier this year, The Inquirer reported about thieves compromising the collection boxes across West Philadelphia. But the mail theft and subsequent check fraud has expanded across the city and into the suburbs, officials say, and is so pervasive that the Postal Service is in the process of replacing the locks on every collection box in Philadelphia.
“We are working diligently with suppliers, maintenance and the US Postal Inspection Service to accomplish this task as expeditiously as possible,” USPS spokesperson Paul Smith said in a statement.
The Postal Inspection Service is “aggressively investigating” the crimes, said agency spokesperson George Clark. He said that local law enforcement has made a few arrests, including this week in Tredyffrin Township in Chester County but that it takes time to build a case.
“This is a top priority for us,” Clark said.
Clark said he did not have access to data on how many thefts and break-ins have been reported. When The Inquirer requested the data through a Freedom of Information Act request earlier this year, the USPS said it could not provide the information because its system did not filter out thefts from other complaints, like mail delivery issues.
Still, Clark said, “I think we’ve seen it spread, unfortunately, throughout the city and into the surrounding suburban neighborhoods.”
In the past, thieves have attached glue traps to the ends of string to “fish” letters out of the mailboxes’ small opening. But now they’re obtaining the keys to the box.
One key, formally called an arrow key, opens up every corner collection box and apartment mailbox for a zip code, making it quite valuable.
Casselli, of the union, said that thieves are robbing mail carriers of their keys, and some are even approaching mail carriers and offering money — sometimes thousands of dollars — for their key.
Casselli also said that because of short-staffed post offices, the accountability process for checking out and returning the keys sometimes doesn’t happen. In an August 2020 report, the Postal Service’s Office of the Inspector General, which conducts internal audits and investigations, called the agency’s oversight of arrow keys “ineffective.”
A Delaware County mail carrier said last week management told carriers to be careful of robbers, and that if someone tries to steal the key, for their safety, don’t resist.
Last month, two mail carriers were robbed at gunpoint for their keys and mailbags in separate incidents in Northeast Philadelphia.
Replacing the locks and issuing new keys is a massive undertaking. Philadelphia has over 1,500 collection boxes, Smith said. He couldn’t estimate when it would be completed.
After mailbox locks were replaced in Westchester, N.Y., in early 2019, “we saw a complete stop in mail theft from the blue boxes,” an assistant district attorney for the county previously told The Inquirer.
Once thieves find a check, they’ll often dip it in acetone to wash off the ink, then change the name and increase the amount. They go to banks or ATMs and withdraw cash, or deposit it into a burner account. Sometimes they can cash the check without even changing the name. Other times, they’ll use the bank account information on the check to wire money, or create fake identification cards in the victim’s name.
Lisa Weinberger, who runs a small graphic design firm, dropped a $1,200 check for a subcontractor into the blue mailbox at 24th and Lombard Streets in August. After it hadn’t arrived about 10 days later, Weinberger saw a $33,242.33 withdrawal from her bank account.
Weinberger panicked. She looked at the electronic copy of the check, which showed that someone had changed the recipient name and memo.
Because the funds hadn’t officially cleared into the thief’s account, her bank stopped the transaction. Had she noticed just one day later, she said, the thief would have made off with the funds.
Weinberger closed the account and now primarily pays contractors via Venmo, or by mailing checks directly inside the post office.
Eric Griffin said he dropped a $5,800 check in the box at 19th and Poplar Streets in Francisville in mid-October for the property taxes of his home in the Poconos. After it hadn’t arrived a few weeks later, Griffin assumed mail delays were holding it up. Then, in early November, he noticed three unauthorized withdrawals from his checking account, totaling $1,546, from a realty group.
He called the Philly-based property manager, and an employee told him that one of their tenants used his banking information to pay rent through their online portal.
The original check never arrived at its destination, so Griffin believes it was taken from the mailbox and someone used the account and routing number on it to pay their rent. Griffin was refunded after threatening legal action.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving, Matt Grubel dropped a $1,300 health-care payment into a mailbox outside of the post office at 40th and Spruce Streets. By Monday, someone had changed the name on the check and the amount to $8,500.87, and deposited it into a TD bank account, Grubel said.
The sum caused his account to go into overdraft, which caused the bank to deny the withdrawal altogether, so he never lost money. He plans to close the account, and said he’ll never mail a check again.
Postal officials said mail that sits in the blue boxes overnight is more susceptible to being stolen, so residents are advised to check the pickup time posted on the box and wait until the next morning if the mail has already been collected.
“It really would eliminate the vast majority of mail thefts, because however they’re getting into blue collection boxes, having the quiet and cover and darkness is a thief’s favorite thing,” Clark said.