CLEVELAND — Is your mail safe? News 5 Investigators have new information about stolen checks, stolen universal mailbox keys, and the real life consequences of mail carriers being robbed.
Watch News 5 Investigator Jonathan Walsh's report on News 5 at 6 p.m.
Last September, News 5 Investigators reported a 161% increase in mail theft. Since then, we’ve asked the question: Is anything getting better?
“No. In fact, the opposite. It’s getting worse,” said Frank Albergo, the National President of the Postal Police Officers Association.
In the past few months, several of our local postal workers were robbed at gunpoint and more mail stolen.
“Think about what’s happening. It’s nuts!” said Albergo.
He told us robbers are getting their hands on universal keys called Arrow Keys.
“They open up all blue collection boxes. They open up PO Boxes. They open up cluster apartment boxes,” explained Albergo.
That can affect thousands of people in entire zip codes. Those keys are used to snag mail, especially personal and business checks. And where is all of this ending up?
KEYS SELLING FOR BIG BUCKS
“We’re trying to alert the authorities about this issue with the hope that they will do something about it,” said Dr. David Maimon from Georgia State University. He and his team track the sale of illegal items on online underground markets through apps. Maimon has seen the Arrow Keys popping up.
“Offering keys for sale for amounts ranging from $1,000 to sometimes $7,000, depending on the zip code and the location,” he said.
That’s not all. The original Arrow Keys are copied and sold to crooks, making the access to mailboxes even wider.
“It’s fairly easy once you have a picture of the key to actually print 3-D or use 3-D printers to print keys as well,” explained Maimon.
When it comes to checks, there’s been an explosion of them available.
“Some months, we see more than $10 million being stolen. In other months, we see more than $30 million being stolen,” Maimon told us.
MORE CHECKS ON UNDERGROUND MARKETS
Maimon's team reported that in October of 2020, the average was 114 stolen checks in a week on the underground markets. In October of 2021, that average reached more than 1,000.
Maimon said personal checks are sold for $120-$175 each, and business checks are sold for up to $250 each. Crooks will buy them, wash the checks with things like nail polish remover, and write in a new amount. Some criminals are carefully clever, too.
“In order for them to go under the radar, they would like to have the amounts on the checks that are very close to the amount the victim originally had on the check,” said Maimon.
USPS ORGANIZATIONS POINTING FINGERS ELSEWHERE
What’s happening with mail security? We asked the Cleveland Post Office about 10 different questions. It answered one of them, saying there are no plans to replace blue collection boxes or the locks on boxes. It said for other answers, we should ask the Office of Inspector General and the Postal Inspection Service.
The OIG answered half a question and pushed us to Postal Inspections. Postal Inspections’ initial response was to refer us to the Cleveland Post Office, leading News 5 investigators in a complete circle with many questions still unanswered.
All of this is happening while USPS cut back Postal Police Officers’ responsibilities for mail carriers, mail, and boxes.
“We’re sitting around,” said Albergo. “We’re not protecting the mail when it’s off postal property. It makes absolutely no sense. “
WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR IMPORTANT MAIL
So, in the meantime, what do you do with your important letters, mail and payments?
“Do not mail anything in a blue collection box,” said Albergo.
“You probably want to go into a post office and leave your mail with a clerk,” said Maimon.
The bottom line is you need to be careful with your mail, especially with tax season right around the corner when checks are bound to be in the mail.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service has since apologized for referring us back to the local post office. It has told us it takes security seriously and inspectors are "at work to protect your mail."