Those blue postal collection boxes outside of post offices are sitting ducks for identity thieves. Getting mail out of them is as easy as licking an envelope.
Crimes occur but information is scarce
Yet the U.S. Postal Service and the U.S. Postal Inspection service don’t easily release the information about mailbox break-ins to the public. Rarely, do you see these break-ins listed in police crime reports. The only way to get the information is through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.
As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, the problem of thefts from blue U.S. Postal Service collection boxes apparently hasn’t gotten any better in the past year. Watchdog Nation took a sample of its home Fort Worth postal district.
Mostly unreported crimes
A year ago, the Fort Worth postal district reported 60 mailbox thefts in 13 months. But in the past 11 months, there have been more than 80 incidents in the district, which includes Amarillo, Lubbock, Abilene and Decatur, too.
Most of the thefts are in Fort Worth and Arlington. (See the 3-page government release here.)
Fort Worth boxes were hit almost 40 times, with the crimes scattered throughout the city.
Arlington had 28 reported incidents. One blue collection box at 300 E. South St. was apparently hit eight times.
Watchdog Nation methodology
I asked for a list of all reported incidents of theft, vandalism and tampering involving the blue collection boxes in the last 11 months of 2010.
The Postal Inspection Service cautioned me about the data it sent me:
“These reports are the raw, unverified data provided by USPS employees. Some of the entries provided contain duplicate reports of possible thefts or vandalism, as well as unverified dates of possible thefts or vandalism.” (I eliminated the obvious duplicates.)
I asked for vandalism and tampering crimes, too, because it’s often hard to prove any mail was stolen, but a good indicator is whether a mailbox was vandalized or tampered with.
How bad is the problem?
John Breyault of the National Consumer League suggests that before you mail anything, you check the condition of a mailbox. “Is it in good repair? Is the lock on it secure? Does it look like it’s been tampered with somehow?”
He also offers an excellent idea: Check periodically with your residential carrier about mailbox thefts in your area.
A mailbox security expert tells me that along with thefts from mailboxes at homes, thefts at collection boxes remain a major problem nationwide.
“It’s basically a crime that’s not being prosecuted because there’s too much of it to deal with,” says Michael Johnston, owner of USMailboxes. “The way I see it and experience it, it has increased tremendously in the last few years. It started out as a way for thieves to get drug money. Now the recession has made it worse.”
Ten years ago, Johnston was hired by the post office to strengthen the blue collection boxes in his home state of Oregon. “We went around and put those security bars on to help make it harder to break into without a key,” he said. “We also put a heavier lock that was harder to pick. And they put special locking nuts on the bolts in the ground so they couldn’t easily be taken off.
“I don’t know how to make them stronger. I don’t think they know either. The biggest problem up here now is they throw a chain around it and yank it out of the ground.”
The blue collection boxes are especially popular, he says, because they contain more mail, especially bill payments containing individual checks. Thieves can use the name, address, account and bank routing numbers on the checks for identity theft.
“The post office would like to remove the blue boxes,” Johnston says. “They would like to take them all off the streets and make people go to the post office or use their own mailbox to send mail out.”
What should you do?
If that’s true, the post office won’t state that publicly. In a statement to The Watchdog this week, Postal Inspection Service spokesman Michael J. Romano writes, “The Postal Service employs crime prevention countermeasures for collection box thefts, but for obvious reasons, this information is law enforcement sensitive and is not released to the public.
“We maintain that the U.S. mail is a very safe and secure way of conducting commerce with close to 600 million pieces of mail and packages successfully delivered daily.”
Still, the post office warns, “When possible, customers should avoid placing mail in a blue collection box after the last posted collection time or on a day mail is not scheduled to be picked up. If they must deposit mail during that time, they should use the lobby drop inside a post office.”
The boxes do not provide this information to consumers. But probably they should with signs. If the boxes are not completely safe, the people using them should know. Mail inside is a sitting target. That’s what the numbers show.
File your own request
If you want to file a freedom of information act request, here’s how you do it:
CHIEF POSTAL INSPECTOR
US POSTAL SERVICE
475 L’ENFANT PLAZA SW RM 3100
WASHINGTON DC 20260-2100
Dear FOIA Officer:
Pursuant to the federal Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552, I request access to and copies of a listing of all reported incidents of:
– theft of mail from…
– vandalism of mailbox…
– tampering with ….
the blue collection mailboxes located outside all post offices, stations, substations, etc. in the [YOUR DISTRICT] from [GIVE DATES] to the date of this letter, Dec. 31, 2010.
I agree to pay reasonable duplication fees for the processing of this request, but ask that you first alert me to the charges so I may know before any work is done. You may call me about this at xxx-xxx-xxxx or e-mail to email@example.com.
If my request is denied in whole or part, I ask that you justify all deletions by reference to specific exemptions of the act. I will also expect you to release all segregable portions of otherwise exempt material. I, of course, reserve the right to appeal your decision to withhold any information or to deny a waiver of fees.
I look forward to your reply within 20 business days, as the statute requires. Thank you for your assistance.
# # #
Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber