The Thief Is In The MailWritten by Identity Theft 911
29 January 2004 The car doors slam. The wheels screech. The teenagers pilot speeding car down pavement into darkness; a crash is heard. That's when public service message appears at bottom of TV screen: Lock your car. Take your keys.It seems strange today to think that once upon a time, people needed to be told that leaving their keys in an unlocked car might be a bad idea. At time, though, wake-up call was very much in order. The world was changing fast. So were risks of living in it.Flash forward 40 years to Memphis, Tennessee, in early years of 21st century. A 49-year-old woman stares at surveillance monitor, watching in disbelief as a surreal scene unfolds on her front porch. A man bundled up in a heavy jacket and hat rings bell, then knocks loudly on door. Getting no answer, he glances at silent intercom, calmly removes outgoing mail from her mailbox, and walks away.It's 10:00 a.m., and Bethany Overton's identity has just been stolen. Also missing is updated version of that government warning:Lock your mailbox. Take your keys.Identity theft: Not just an online crime Identity theft is America's fastest-growing crime. Last year alone, more than 9.9 million Americans were victims of identity theft — a 41 percent increase over year before — at a cost to U.S. economy of roughly $53 billion. In reality, number of identity theft victims and economic impact of various crimes involved — from mail theft to Internet fraud — were probably even higher. And as identity thieves find new ways of stealing people's identifying information and new ways of abusing it, these crimes are expected to proliferate at an even faster rate.It's commonly assumed that current fraud epidemic has its roots online. In fact, identity theft often begins with mail theft: letters and packages stolen from unlocked or unprotected mailboxes — often placed along rural or suburban roads or grouped in front of apartment buildings, where access is easy and oversight is nil.For an identity thief, haul can be substantial: credit cards, driver's licenses, bank statements, boxes of unused checks, Social Security payments, health insurance cards, tax information, and other sensitive data. The criminals then leverage this information to exploit existing accounts or to create new ones. They may use chemical agents to remove handwritten information from stolen checks, which are then repurposed and cashed. They run up bills, pass bad checks, buy cars and houses, engage in various other criminal practices — and, in end, pin whole mess on you.Besides ease of access, mail thieves have another big advantage: time it can take you to realize that something is amiss. When outbound letters vanish, it's assumed that they're headed for their destination; disappearance of inbound mail generally passes unnoticed. Depending on data that thieves manage to grab, your first sign of fraud might come as quickly as your next credit card statement — assuming that it gets to you at all — or months later, when IRS or FBI come looking for someone with your Social Security number who's run afoul of law.Not that perpetrators necessarily come off as career criminals. "He looked like your typical neighbor," Beth Overton said of 30ish man who strode off with her mail. "He didn't look thuggy or anything." Days later, once she had gotten over shock, Overton decided to warn her neighbors by putting up a handwritten sign on her chain-link fence. "I wanted neighbors to know. Besides, I didn't know how many other people might also have had their outgoing mail stolen." Fighting back against mail theft Overton was right to warn her neighbors — criminals may occasionally be clean-cut, but consequences of this crime are brutal. The good news is that mail theft and related crimes are being reported to authorities more often — and are being targeted aggressively by federal law enforcement agencies.One of lead agencies in fight against identity theft has been United States Postal Inspection Service, law enforcement branch of U.S. Postal Service. The USPIS is empowered by federal laws and regulations to investigate and enforce more than 200 federal statutes related to crimes against U.S. Mail, Postal Service, and its employees. U.S. Postal Inspectors investigate any crime in which U.S. Mail is used to further a scheme, whether it originated in mail, by telephone or on Internet.Because so much of criminal activity related to identity theft involves U.S. Mail, U.S. Postal Inspectors have long been on front lines of battle against identity thieves. Mail may be stolen to obtain information needed to apply for checks or credit cards, or to complete fraudulent applications for new cards. Financial institutions typically send checks and credit cards via U.S. Mail — making those items a succulent target for mail thieves, who can use anonymous addresses at mail drops (officially referred to as "commercial mail receiving agencies," or CMRAs) to collect proceeds of their crimes.Last year, USPIS made 5,858 mail theft arrests. One especially dramatic operation in June 2002 had federal postal inspectors fanned out across five states in a crackdown involving USPIS, U.S. Marshals Service, Secret Service, several police departments, and identity theft task forces from several states. The operation netted more than 100 arrests in California alone. The first quarter of fiscal year 2004 (from 1 October to 31 December 2003) saw 1,522 mail theft and identity theft arrests by USPIS nationally; 124 of those occurred in territory of San Francisco office, which includes San Francisco Bay area, Silicon Valley, Sacramento, Stockton, and Fresno.According to Paul FX Lowery, an inspector with San Francisco office of USPIS, mail theft is skyrocketing throughout Western states. Some steal mail to fuel their drug addictions; others buy cars and wide-screen televisions. Increasingly, organized crime rings also view mail fraud as an easy entry into big-time identity theft. "It's most opportunistic crime in United States," says Lowery. "It's a bottomless cookie jar for these mail thieves."Everyone is a target Northern California U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan has no trouble identifying with victims of mail theft. Ryan and his wife were targeted last summer by a ring that made off with his Social Security number and his bank access code, even managing to write and cash several checks before he discovered theft. They have yet to restore their financial information to state it was in before whole mess came down, says Ryan. "It's not fun," he adds.The ring that targeted him has yet to be caught. But Ryan can point to one success story: case against Shawn Webb Fitzgerald in San Francisco. The 26 year-old Fitzgerald — who admitted to stealing bank numbers, credit card information, and brokerage statements, and creating files on his victims as far back to December 2001 — was charged with stealing some 7,000 pieces of mail and possessing a counterfeit mailbox key. Last May, Fitzgerald was sentenced to 105 months in prison.Postal Inspector Robert Carlson, of San Francisco division of United States Postal Inspection Service, deals with "external crimes mail theft" — mail stolen from external sources and used to commit identity theft and other fraud-related crimes. Once a perpetrator has been caught, says Carlson, crime is relatively simple to prove, and conviction rates are high. And unlike some fraud-related crimes, this is an area where "current laws are pretty inclusive." Perpetrators are most commonly charged with possession of stolen mail under U.S. Code 1708, a crime that can land them in federal prison for up to five years.Because crimes investigated by Carlson and his colleagues are violations of federal law, prosecutions are handled by U.S. Attorney's office. But Carlson emphasizes that postal investigators work closely with local police departments as well. "For instance, we rely heavily on local police to notify us if they find stolen mail in course of an arrest," he points out.An organized crime
How to Protect Your Mail from ThievesWritten by Identity Theft 911
How to Protect Your Mail from Thieves U.S. Postal Inspection Service
Every day, U.S. Postal Service safely and efficiently delivers millions of checks, money orders, credit cards and other valuable items. Unfortunately, thieves know this, and are waiting to steal your mail. Postal Inspectors across country work to protect your mail, but with deliveries to well over 100 million addresses, Postal Inspection Service can't do job alone.
Make it harder for thieves to steal your mail. Follow these tips:
* Never send cash or coins in mail. Use checks or money orders. * Promptly remove mail from your mailbox after delivery, especially if you're expecting checks, credit cards, food coupons or other negotiable items. If you won't be home when items are expected, ask a trusted friend or neighbor to pick up your mail. * Have your local post office hold your mail while you're on vacation, or absent from your home for a long period of time. * If you don't receive a check, food coupon or other valuable mail you're expecting, contact issuing agency immediately. * If you change your address, immediately notify your post office and anyone with whom you do business via mail.