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.
How was crime in 2021 vs. 2020 or 2019?
It would be good to know if this is a blip or a trend.
Somewhere we reversed course from reports how crime was down. But now the conversation will shift to…but it’s up everywhere else too so we aren’t special. Keep doing what we are doing.
Theft of checks from street mailboxes is not a new crime.
But it is more prevalent now than ever before
Easy solution: I bet the only place that will cash these altered checks are check-cashing stores. I doubt a bank would, with the Payee’s name bleached out. Find a money store where this is happening and set up a sting. I bet the check cashiers are in on it too.
and if they catch anyone. what happens
It is a federal crime. When I was on federal grand jury duty (SDNY) a number of years ago, we indicted a set of accused criminals, who were subsequently convicted as I recall, in part on the basis of video evidence of their mailbox fishing.
“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.”
I would love pay my rent electronically. But the large management company I rent from charges a hefty fee for electronic payments.
I think you’re confusing electronic payments (no fee) with credit card payments (fee).
Your management company can’t charge you a fee for your electronic payment. Your bank will mail a check to them according to your online instructions.
In addition, when you pay online for “one-time” set up costs, such as magazine, films, etc, those places automatically “renew” you next time, and along with no real customer service, make it very hard to cancel service! So you’re robbed online, in another fashion. So now I only use checks, and drop it off at a public or private post office.
Electronically as in your bank mails the check for you.
I had a check stolen and washed, and have now switched to my bank’s Bill Pay–which is a check sent from the bank rather than from me. The bank swears it is safer, and perhaps your management company wouldn’t count it as an electronic payment
You can issue a check on-line with your bank. This way the check is picked up directly from the bank and bypasses street mail boxes. It still goes via normal USPS route, but no street mailboxes.
Actually if the management company is big enough, it is handled as an ACH and no actual piece of paper goes in the mail.
While any system can be gamed, the relatively new slot (rather than door hatch) mailboxes are much safer.
West Side Rag wrote about them in January 2019: https://www.westsiderag.com/2019/01/08/new-thin-slot-mailboxes-may-have-solved-the-scourge-of-mail-fishing
When I found 2 mailboxes with sticky mail slots on Amsterdam and Broadway in the Upper W 60s, I had an awful time trying to report them to the post office officials – impossible to report by phone and even when I went to the 67th post office in person, there was no evident concern. We can’t all walk to the post office with every letter. The Trump appointed corrupt head guy has never been punished or charged for ruining our system. What are we to do?
Good to see this story. I’ve noticed for months that the mailbox slot on Columbus and 77th (right outside Shake Shack) has had a sticky substance on it. Letters don’t go down unless you push them through hard… and BYOHS (bring your own hand sanitizer b/c it is NASTY). I never knew where to report it b/c the post office on 83rd is so blase about mail not being delivered daily to residences that I figured sticky stuff wouldn’t resonate either.
WSR – any idea where to report stuff like this?
Thank you, Postmaster General Louis Dejoy, for taking another giant step toward decimating our once excellent postal service. Thanks for reducing the number of postal police from 2700 to 350 nationally, and limiting their responsibility to protecting P.O. premises instead of dealing with mailbox theft. Just another Trump appointee eager to privatize this vital agency in complete disregard for the needs of its customers.
The USPS has never been a beacon of efficiency and good management.
If you must write and mail checks I suggest you use the Uni- ball 207 pen it is harder to wash off the check. Of course they can still make a new copy of your check using your routing and account number.
This happened to me. Check for my credit card payment for $3,400 was phished in August from mailbox at West End Ave and W. 81. It was cashed at a Wells Fargo bank without an endorsement. Four months later, fraud case is still pending. Wells Fargo stated to my bank’s (TD Bank) fraud department that they are backed up and are handling cases now dating from December 2021. There is a lot to unpack here.
Can someone please clarify: is this happening with the new, improved mailboxes that have extremely thin slots? Or just with the old ones? Wish this had been covered in the article.
If you see it feel sticky stuff on the mailbox slot you should cover up the sticky stuff with any piece of wastepaper
I find it remarkable (and a bit upsetting) that some readers are suggesting workarounds because of this criminal activity.
It is EASY to locate the sticky mailboxes.
We all KNOW the criminal will be coming back there soon.
Law enforcement: Do your job and make the ARREST.
The same can be said for so many other visible and audible offenses. They are all apparent. No need for Sherlock Holmes – or even an average intelligence – to discover the perpetrator.
In so many areas, law enforcement has taken the past few years off.
So why not take a wipe with you to the mailsox. The wipe will get rid of the sticky and dries instantly. Then mail your letter have a cup of coffee and rejoice that yu did a kind thing. You can repeat as necessary..