By Carol Tannenhauser
There’s a new mailbox in town that appears to be reducing the crime known as “mail fishing.”
For more than two years, we’ve been reporting on thieves who drop sticky objects attached to string into U.S. Postal Service mailboxes, pulling up envelopes that adhere to the glue. Many of those envelopes contain checks, which the culprits then alter and cash. As recently as July, 2018, five checks were apparently fished out of a mailbox right in front of the Planetarium post office on 83rd Street, yielding a haul worth $53,000.
Now, it appears the mail fishing season on the Upper West Side is over — perhaps permanently. Beginning last May, every mailbox in the 20th precinct (59th – 86th Streets), and most in the 24th precinct (86th – 110th Streets), was replaced with a new “high-security collection box.”
On first glance, the box looks just like the old one — same bright blue color and curved top, same eagle — but gone is the creaky, pull-down chute. In its place is a narrow slot that leaves some first-time users looking like contestants on Candid Camera (or Punk’d for younger people). One man told us he “gave up,” deciding the box was “locked.” Two sisters peered, pulled, and pounded, before spotting the large white arrow pointing to the mail slot.
“We know these boxes work,” said Donna Harris, public information representative for the U.S. Postal Inspections Service, New York Division. “Statistics show that where we have placed them, reports of mail theft have significantly decreased or gone to zero.”
According to Deputy Inspector Timothy Malin, commanding officer of the 20th precinct, suspected mail fishing incidents dropped from 17 in the period from January-March 2018, to 4 from October-December (and the latter may have been before all the new boxes were installed). Community Affairs Officer Stephen Jones of the 24th precinct said “We have noticed a marked decrease in incidences of mailbox fishing-related crimes since the upgrades were completed.”
The Postal Service plans to replace all of the city’s existing mailboxes — most of them over 50 years old — with new ones, equipped with many safety features Harris declined to disclose. She did describe the process postal inspectors went through to combat mail fishing.
“First, we looked at crime statistics with the help of NYPD, and identified areas where there was an uptick in mail theft. Then, we focused on prevention, how to harden the targets, which we did with the new boxes. Then, there is enforcement through arrests. It’s been an all-encompassing process,” Harris concluded, “but we were focused on getting it done to protect our customers and the U.S. mail. Postal Inspectors take the security of the mail very seriously. We have been protecting it for over 250 years.”
“The real test of the new mailboxes’ effectiveness will come around tax time, when we typically see the largest spike in thefts,” Malin said. “I’m optimistic.”