Free-standing postal boxes are easy prey for ID thieves

Let me share a piece of advice designed to protect you from losing money — or worse, having your identity stolen.

I waited until I received the results of my latest Freedom of Information Act request from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to make sure it remains a problem.

My advice: Stop dropping your outgoing mail in those blue postal collection boxes placed outside post offices and in shopping centers or office parks.

Why? Because mail sometimes gets stolen. When that happens, it’s difficult to find out what happened because definitive information on mail theft from blue collection boxes is not collected and tabulated.

Police departments don’t keep statistics, and numbers kept by postal authorities are not complete.

What this means is if mail is stolen, it’s hard to tell. Authorities in some parts of the country routinely send out announcements of suspected mailbox thefts, but in others they don’t.

Often the only way someone figures out that mail they placed in a blue box was stolen is they later learn it never arrived at its intended destination.

Someone might get charged late fees on bills when they know they mailed the payments well before the deadline. Or money orders or checks found in stolen mail are altered by thieves and used for other purposes. Plus, that’s how identity theft begins.

I’ve followed this subject closely in North Texas for five years. In 2011, I was quite surprised to learn that for the previous year, Tarrant County showed the highest rate of theft from blue mailboxes in the nation. One in 7 such thefts in the U.S. was reported in Fort Worth alone.

For my most recent public information request, I asked the U.S. Postal Inspection Service for incidents of mail theft from blue collection boxes from January 2013 to March of this year. I asked only for mailbox thefts from the Dallas District, which includes ZIP codes that begin with the numbers 75.

What did I learn? As I mentioned, the information is not solid but it gives a good idea of the problem. One reason the numbers aren’t solid is that sometimes people report stolen mail. But when the mail arrives late, they don’t contact authorities to clear the record.

Other times, a mailbox has been tampered with, but no one knows for sure if any mail was removed.

The spreadsheet I received shows that there were 47 suspected incidents of blue mailbox theft or vandalism during that span. This doesn’t include thefts from private mailboxes outside a home or business.

The postal inspection service recommends against using the outdoor blue boxes, often placed at drive-through lanes outside post office branches, after the final listed pickup time of the day, usually around dinnertime.

At night, inspectors recommend going inside a post office and using the safer wall slot. The reason: Most thefts happen at night.

The Watchdog goes a step further. After studying this, I stopped using outdoor boxes. I always walk into a post office and use the inside slot.

There are two common ways thieves break into boxes. They use a crowbar to pry a box open. Or they use a fishing line with a sticky substance to fish mail out.

The newest records show that the area post office with the biggest problem the past year is the Oak Lawn post office at 2825 Oak Lawn Ave. in Dallas. Thirteen of the 47 suspected break-ins and thefts took place there.

Runners-up are the Prestonwood post office at 5995 Summerside Drive in Far North Dallas, and the Clark post office at 1502 E. Kiest Blvd. in east Oak Cliff. Each has five suspected incidents.

The Postal Inspection Service aggressively chases mail thieves. Inspectors often bring cases against thieves and secure convictions.

When I asked the national spokeswoman for the postal inspectors how the public is notified of what it internally calls mailbox “attacks,” Lori McCallister answered, “We put out consumer alerts to media outlets in that area stating there has been a collection box attacked.”

But when I asked her to show me examples of these media alerts for our area, she didn’t provide any.

Millions of pieces of mail are handled by the Postal Service each year. The amount stolen is very small.

But if you’re the victim of identity theft, you don’t care about those odds.

via The Watchdog: Free-standing postal boxes are easy prey for ID thieves | Watchdog Column | DFW Investigations | Dave Lieber | Problem Solver.

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