Local and Federal Officers Hunt ‘Mail Fishers’ as Thefts Continue

By Carol Tannenhauser

More than a year after police officials raised alarms about the growing problem of “mail fishing”, thieves have continued to steal thousands of dollars worth of checks from Upper West Siders.

There have been 28 suspected cases of mail fishing on the Upper West Side since September 1st, according to the NYPD. Twenty-three were grand larcenies, which means more than $1,000 was involved.

Mail fishing is a crime in which perpetrators drop weighted, adhesive-covered objects on a string into mailboxes, then pull them up to see what sticks. What they’re after is envelopes containing checks, which they then “wash” with nail polish remover, alter, and cash.

“The above stats are based on individuals mailing a check, the check never reaching its intended location, and the associated bank account subsequently being compromised,” said Deputy Inspector Levon Holley of the 20th precinct.

Grand larceny is up 16% so far this year in the 20th precinct. It’s down 5% in the 24th.

“It’s impossible to know for sure it’s mail fishing,” Holley explained. “That check could have been intercepted anywhere. I’ve taken reports where mail was deposited directly in the post office and didn’t reach its intended destination.”

“We’ve taken a complaint where the mail woman’s whole cart was stolen!” said Captain Kathleen Fahey, also of the 20th precinct.

One reader told us that thieves “bleached my rent check and got $1,800 from the box on 76th and Columbus.”

Fahey spoke about the difficulties of catching mail fishers.

“Unfortunately, in the age we live in, many criminals don’t want to get into physical altercations,” she said. “Between ATM skimming and identity theft, they’re working smarter not harder.”

The NYPD and United States Postal Inspection Service are both investigating. They’ve highlighted the problem at community meetings this year and last.

“Obviously, we don’t have the resources to watch all the mailboxes — there are 55 in the 20th precinct alone — but we are conducting joint surveillance operations,” Holley said.

“Department cameras are also being utilized at certain mailbox locations,” added a spokesperson from the 24th precinct.

And there are “technological solutions,” according to Donna Harris, spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, New York Division. “What we’ve been doing in areas that have been hardest hit is retrofitting the mailboxes — altering them to have smaller slots.”

Still, Fahey acknowledges, mail fishers seem to be “adapting” to the new boxes and there are other obstacles to catching them. One is the lag time involved between when the crime occurs and when the victim figures out what happened.

“Most victims don’t realize they’re victims for two or three weeks,” she explained. “Then it’s very hard to pinpoint exactly where the crimes occurred, due to the uncertainty of victims about where they mailed the checks. Just because they’re reporting it and live within the confines of the Upper West Side doesn’t mean it happened there. It goes by where they discovered the loss.”

One reader told us she first noticed she’d been ripped off when her check for her apartment insurance never made it to its destination. “I stopped payment and mentioned it to my financial advisor at Citibank. He said that there had been a series of thefts of mail from mailboxes in the neighborhood,” she wrote. “Although there was no suspicious activity on my account, my advisor suggested that I close my current checking account and open a new one, so I did. He said that thieves sometimes hold onto the checks for months thinking that victims will eventually stop monitoring activity.” The problem may not just be “fishing” – the reader said that a friend told her a mailbox in front of the Chase bank at 73rd and Broadway had been broken into, with the mail completely gone.

Police officials have been trying to contact victims, even finding some through the West Side Rag comment section on prior articles.

“An interesting thing is that postal inspectors went onto the West Side Rag and were able to contact some of the victims who wrote in with regard to mailbox fishing,” Harris said. “They’re investigating those reports. There isn’t a lot to tell until we’ve arrested someone, which I’m sure we will.”

Meanwhile, all three officials agree that some of the best ways to thwart mail fishing are through education.

“When you use the blue collection box, put your mail in before the last pick-up time,” Harris encouraged. “It helps it get to where it’s going quicker and it doesn’t sit overnight. Crime often happens under the cover of darkness. Also, you can buy special pens that can’t be washed. And, if you see anyone looking suspicious at a box, or you think you may have been a victim of mail fraud, contact not just NYPD, but the postal inspectors at 212-330-2400. That’s our 24-hour command center. If you leave your information we will contact you.”

Deputy Inspector Holley is considering taking public education to another level. Besides “strongly encouraging individuals not to put paper checks in the mail, I’m thinking of putting together some classes to teach people to become computer literate, so they can do a lot of their financial transactions on line. We have to adapt and evolve, as criminals do.”

Police have posted some tips on how not to be victimized.

NEWS | 23 comments | permalink
    1. Philip says:

      Thanks for the update. This happened to us, but in our case, the thief or thieves created entirely new checks using the information from the existing check (name, address, bank, account and routing numbers). We inspected a copy of the forged check and its design was clearly different. We are also reasonably certain that the check was deposited inside a local post office (700 Columbus, at 95 St) and not in a street mailbox.

      We reported to the bank and also to the NYPD, who assigned a detective out of the Manhattan North Grand Larceny Division.

      The best way to avoid this scam is to use online payments whenever possible. I am glad that the deputy inspector is considering classes to help more people do this; I only worry that other forms of fraud will be just as prevalent online.

    2. Johnny86 says:

      how about a fix of mailboxes that make opening smaller or add device that has flap where envelope can go in but cannot go out. possibly if police offers were out of cars, or lowered their windows they may be able to catch them in the act, instead of more surveillance cameras.

    3. Mark Moore says:

      “Unfortunately, in the age we live in, many criminals don’t want to get into physical altercations…”

      Actually, that’s a good thing. But really, in this day and age of rampant electronic fraud, mailbox fishing seems almost quaint.

    4. Kathy says:

      It’s not just the mailboxes! I don’t use the Podt Office on 104th anymore. I’ve mailed cards (2) with money that never reached their destination and one card w/o money that didn’t get to it’s destination for 3 months! If I have to mail something of importance I send it priority, at least it’s traceable.

      • Mark Timperley says:

        There is something fishy going on at the post office on 104th St. I mailed four Valentines Day cards to my friends’ children in Queens–each with a $20 bill inside–not one of those cards was delivered. I also had previously mailed a birthday card with money to one of those children and it disappeared. I mailed these inside the post office building.

    5. SeekerG says:

      Use your bank´s online Bill Payment option instead of mailing checks. I´ve used it for years without a problem. It saves envelopes, stamps and fishing worries.

      • JOR says:

        Most senior citizens do not use or do not know how to use online payments. And some that are not senior citizens prefer to do mailing their payments since they do not trust online payments. One is at risk of having their accounts being compromised too, via being hacked, when using online methods.

        • Sean says:

          Define seniors because I’m one and I do make online payments and purchases. The only payee that an electronic check might work well with is the rent. NYC landlords are stuck in another century when it comes to this and like paper checks. The bank mails out the check, you don’t. But for everything else there’s a credit card. Who in their right mind sends cash through the mail? Nana needs to investigate Amazon.

      • Elizabeth M says:

        Great idea but not everything can be paid online. I have to mail my rent check; my landlord doesn’t offer online paying. I’m sure other people have the issue.

        • RF says:

          This is my issue as well. My landlord won’t accept anything other than a check (I’ve asked about paying via PayPal, but no luck) so despite paying all of my other bills online, each month I still have to mail a physical check for the rent. This summer I mailed one that never made it to him–I had dropped it into a mailbox on Columbus Ave. Luckily it was never cashed, but it’s frustrating anyway–especially since the bank charges $30 to stop payment on a check.

    6. UWS_lifer says:

      Simple fix on this with all the technology we have today. Might be too expensive though.

      How about a little camera or some kind of sensor on the boxes. I don’t know. Put one of these smart kids on it…they will figure something out.

    7. JOR says:

      This is a nice piece of writing and journalism. Better than than NY Post or Daily News and definitely better than Gothamshit. Ain’t gonna miss that blog,

    8. Jaimie says:

      I had 2 events where I placed mail in the mailbox inside my condo on WEA – and the mail (with checks) never arrived at intended destination. In my opinion, this is a well-organized effort, with multiple parties involved – including postal insiders. Requires a much stronger effort by government to find and prosecute all involved.

    9. Yael says:

      My mom swore that not one piece of mail sent by our family was lost or tampered with, in 50+ years, when placed into the mail shoot, inside our UWS apt bldg. Well, there was that ONE letter that got visibly stuck in the mailshoot, but the mail carrier somehow retrieved it. On the other hand, mail deposited in the box on the street corner had a chance of “disappearing”. My father had a lot of business mail and larger envelopes to send, so he would strategically time his mailbox deposits minutes before carrier pick up! ‘Mail fishing’ is nothing new, it just has a more accurate name!

    10. tony says:

      Is the bank liable in that the check is essentially forged in mailbox fishing and bleaching?

    11. Rita says:

      Been mailing everything, even cards without checks, from inside the post office since first hearing about this. Thanks for making people aware.

    12. Millbrook says:

      Twice I found the large main door where the mail is retrieved unlocked in the box at WEA @ 76. I could open the door and see all the mail in the box. So check that door to ensure it is locked before dropping any mail. I called the Postal Inspectors 800 number to report it and they seemed totally unconcerned. Their response: “don’t worry; when they pick up the mail at the collection time the postal worker will lock it.” It seemed to be a non-event for them.

      • Mark says:

        I have deposited my rent checks for the past 8 years at the box on WEA and 76th. No more! This is good information to know. I had my identity stolen twice last year so I am very careful about everything now.

    13. Charles Guinan says:

      Outstanding, it is great to see this being brought to the Public’s attention. Keep up this great and thoughtful work.

    14. Jerry B says:

      Hey friends. Can anybody tell me where our entire mail drop box went? Could thieves have absconded with the whole thing?
      We’re at 79th and Riverside. The box was up the street at West End Ave. Once there were two at that nearby corned. Now there are none. And I have no idea where to find the nearest drop box.
      Of course, repeated attempts to reach the Planetarium post Office by phone were fruitless. No pick up, no voicemail.

    15. naro says:

      Much more likely that the mailmen who are the fishermen

    16. NYYgirl says:

      Mailbox outside P.O. on 104th st the WORST. Do not use it! I also called the 800# & no one seemed concerned in the least. Inside people not much better.

    17. Dan says:

      So what happens when the washed and rewritten check is cashed? Can’t the police go after the guy who cashed or deposited the check?