By Daniel Katzive
It is a recurring theme at local precinct Community Council meetings: thieves are taking checks from United States Postal Service (USPS) mailboxes. The NYPD is fighting back, but it is an uphill struggle against a widespread national problem, and Upper West Siders are advised by police to avoid putting checks in outdoor collection boxes.
Inspector Naoki Yaguchi, commanding officer of the 24th Precinct, has discussed the problem at a number of recent meetings. According to Yaguchi, who was promoted to the rank of Inspector from Deputy Inspector in November, mailbox thieves often apply a sticky substance to the slots of mailboxes and then return late at night to fish out mail that has been trapped. They then separate the checks they find and use chemical substances to bleach out and change the name of the payee and the amount, often draining thousands of dollars from the accounts of unsuspecting victims. The victims can usually get their money back from their banks, but the process can take weeks or months, leaving them short of funds in the meantime.
The 24th Precinct has had some success in apprehending suspects over the past month, with two arrests made involving stakeouts and subsequent foot pursuits. One of the suspects had prior arrests and is being held, according to the Inspector. Up-to-date statistics on mailbox theft do not appear to be available, but according to a 2021 audit by the Postal Service’s Inspector General, the Postal Inspection Service received 299,020 mail-theft complaints in the year ending February 2021, a 161 percent increase over the prior year.
The increase in mail theft complaints comes at a time when the ranks of postal police officers have thinned and their efforts have been directed away from securing mailboxes. There are currently only 350 postal police officers nationwide, down from peak levels of around 2,700 in past years, according to September 2022 Congressional testimony from the National President of the Postal Police Officers Association, Frank Albergo. Moreover, according to Albergo’s testimony, in August 2020, the Postal Service adopted a new policy more narrowly defining the scope of postal police’s responsibility to simply protecting premises and no longer responding to threats to collection boxes. This has left the NYPD and other local police forces as the primary guardian of these services.
Testifying at the same hearing, a senior USPS official in the Philadelphia area said the service is making continual efforts to secure mailboxes and prevent “fishing.” But the service still recommends that checks be mailed using slots inside the Post Office or handed to a letter carrier and, when using an outdoor mailbox, mail only before the last collection time of the day so mail does not sit in the box overnight. NYPD officials at recent precinct meetings have gone further, suggesting residents move away from using checks to pay bills altogether and instead investigate electronic payment options with their banks.
Crime higher across most categories on the West Side in 2022, particularly larceny and burglary
Looking beyond this particular scourge, Inspector Yaguchi reviewed crime statistics for the year at the precinct’s December council meeting this week. For most categories of felonies, levels are comparable to 2021. Burglary and grand larceny, including check thefts, are definite exceptions, having increased substantially over the year, though the precinct has had some success in bringing numbers down from the summer peak.
There have been four shooting incidents in the precinct this year, all of which resulted in arrests. This includes the one murder this year in the precinct, which was closed with an arrest in August. The suspect in that case remains in custody on Rikers Island after pleading not guilty and is awaiting his next court date next year, according to Department of Corrections and court records. It also includes the shooting of a Danish tourist on 103rd Street in September. The suspect in that crime also pleaded not guilty and remains in custody awaiting trial.
Crime patterns were similar in the 20th Precinct (south of 86th Street) in 2022. Unlike in the 24th, assaults rose for the year in the 20th, but there was only one shooting incident and zero murders.