Soaring mail thefts alarm members of Congress, postal officials
By Bill McAllister, Washington Correspondent
Your mail is not as safe as it used to be.
The reason is that gangs have discovered that so-called arrow keys carried by postal workers can open scores of blue mail collection boxes.
This finding has produced a crime wave that has alarmed members of Congress, postal unions and even postal police officers.
Arrests for mail theft are up. In fiscal year 2021, the United States Postal Inspection Service made 1,511 arrests for mail theft. For the current fiscal year, the number of arrests had risen to 1,142 by early September when the U.S. House Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations revealed the extent of the problem.
As the incidents have grown, the U.S. Postal Service has taken the unprecedented step of warning about the risks of placing mail in its thousands of blue mail collection boxes. It is urging the public to be wary of putting letters in them at certain times.
The Postal Service is now saying the best advice is to give your mail to a clerk in a post office or deposit it in mail slots inside the office.
“Never deposit mail” in a blue box after mail from that box has been collected for that day, advised a news release the USPS sent to media in Alabama.
“Avoid depositing mail during the night, Sundays and federal holidays,” the release said.
While these cautions are new, they reflect what the Postal Service sees as a dangerous breed of mail thieves, ones determined to rob postal workers of keys used to open those collection boxes.
The problem might seem most prevalent in urban areas, but Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, recently produced a list of 11 communities in his state where mail carriers have been robbed in the past year. Some are small towns.
“This appears to be an organized criminal effort,” the senator told Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in an Oct. 14 letter, saying the carriers “are targeted for their ‘universal’ arrow keys that can open multiple USPS collection boxes.”
The stolen mail is sold online, “costing Ohio residents millions,” Brown said, declaring there has been a 400 percent increase in postal robberies nationwide since 2019.
The head of the Postal Police Officers Association told Linn’s Stamp News that investigators for an Orlando, Fla., TV station found that 2,600 postal carriers were attacked across the nation between January 2019 and June 2022, with at least 170 mail collection keys stolen.
Television station WFTV said thefts of arrow keys are soaring, with 67 stolen nationwide in the first half of 2022, compared to 55 in 2021.
National figures are not readily available from the Postal Inspection Service.
When asked about the recent increase in assaults on postal workers, a spokeswoman for the Postal Inspection Service told Linn’s that it must file a Freedom of Information Act request, a process that can take weeks. Linn’s filed such a request on Nov. 3.
The Postal Police Officers Association, which has been upset over recent limits on its patrolling away from postal property, produced a list of incidents labeled “The Plague of Postal-Related Street Crime.”
The list begins in September 2020 and runs to four typewritten, single-spaced pages.
Frank Albergo, president of the Postal Police Officers Association, believes the numbers the Orlando TV station cited understate the problem.
With his force down to about 350 officers and 75 supervisors, it is not large enough to handle the current surge in mail thefts and robberies, Albergo has said.
At a Sept. 7 congressional field hearing in Philadelphia, Gary J. Vaccarella, district manager for the Postal Service’s Delaware-Pennsylvania-2 District, acknowledged concern over what he described as “recent increases in mail theft from collection boxes and robberies of letter carriers in Pennsylvania and other areas of the country.”
He also hinted that there might be a sophisticated criminal element involved, as Sen. Brown has suggested.
“While many instances of mail theft have traditionally been relatively unsophisticated and perpetrated by lone actors, recent trends demonstrate more organized criminal groups are seeking to steal identities and financial instruments from the mail,” Vaccarella said.
In the past, criminals would attempt to fish letters out of blue mailboxes, using a line with a sticky substance to pull a letter out via the deposit slot, he said. Many boxes have been retrofitted with a device that cuts the lines, he said.
Some boxes have been replaced entirely with a newer model that has a “skinny slot,” he said.
Since the hearing by the House Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations in Philadelphia, the USPS has begun to warn the public about the risk of letters being pulled out of blue collection boxes by thieves.
Albergo asserted in a letter to the subcommittee that the USPS “does not warn customers or postal employees when there are active threats against the mail or postal employee safety.” Albergo said that instead of warnings the USPS “downplays the problem by flippantly stating that because of an ‘open investigation’ the agency cannot comment.”
“Moreover, the Postal Service rarely takes blue collection boxes out of service regardless of the number of times a particular box has been compromised,” he said.
In his letter to DeJoy, Brown cited an internal USPS memo saying that postal robberies have grown by 400 percent since 2019.
In his prepared testimony, Vaccarella said that the robberies using arrow keys are mostly in urban areas such as Philadelphia.
The robberies reflect “a variety of factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and its detrimental impact on people’s lives, mental health and financial stability,” he said.
Another factor might be the increase in the number of packages the USPS is delivering, Vaccarella said. He presented postal management’s views at the hearing.
What troubled Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations, was the testimony of Albergo and the limits the Postal Service has placed on the uniformed officers who serve alongside plainclothes postal inspectors.
Not only has the uniformed postal police force shrunk dramatically in recent years, but its chief inspector also has curtailed where the uniformed officers can work. The USPS says the uniformed officers are located in about 20 cities.
In a controversial 2020 decision, Postal Inspection Service Chief Gary R. Barksdale directed the uniformed officers to restrict most of their patrols to postal properties.
That rules out riding along with letter carriers in neighborhoods where attacks on letter carriers are likely, Albergo said.
In his letter to DeJoy, Brown described the restriction as “misguided” and said it is “making mail carriers and the communities they serve less safe.”
The senator also said Barksdale’s decision is a product of misreading the Postal Inspection Service’s own history.
According to Brown, the Postal Inspection Service’s history “details how the service ‘supervised the transportation and delivery of mail to union troops’ ” during the Civil War.
Brown also said that “after the Postal Police Officer security force was created in 1970, they were named officially ‘Postal’ not ‘Post Office’ Police Officers in 1981 since they were ‘responsible for protecting people and property.’ ”
Vaccarella defended restricting the uniformed officers to postal property.
He downplayed the chances of a postal police officer “witnessing a postal crime actively in progress” and warned Congress not to consider legislation that would clarify the use of the uniformed officers off of postal property.
The Postal Inspection Service, Vaccarella said, “would likely not deploy [postal police officers] in a different manner than they are used today” if Congress enacts a law calling for their use away from postal property.
Vaccarella said the rise in postal crimes could be linked to a general rise in criminal activity.
“While it is important to remember that violence against USPS employees is still very rare given the scale of USPS operations, one violent or threatening encounter is too many,” he said.
Vaccarella said the Postal Inspection Service has a “multi-layered approach” to combating mail thefts and robberies.
It will be able to “protect the mail and keep employees safe,” he said.
Albergo maintained that the function of the officers patrolling away from postal sites would be to help deter criminals from assaulting carriers.
Most police forces employ patrolling as one of their major crime-prevention tasks, Albergo said.
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