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Criminals target mailboxes to commit financial crimes, officials say. What to know.

Federal prosecutors announced developments in two cases involving mail theft Thursday, the latest series of charges across the country as the U.S. Postal Service grapples with securing deliveries.

In Missouri, a 21-year-old man was sentenced to 20 months in prison for attempting to bribe postal carriers for keys to mail collection boxes, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. In North Carolina, a man pleaded guilty on Thursday to committing bank fraud using stolen mail after authorities found he had taken over 850 pieces of mail from at least 10 people, including credit cards, tax forms, financial statements, and checks.

The Postal Service acknowledged a rise in mail fraud and attacks on carriers last year, citing a national rise in crime overall. The agency said 412 letter carriers were robbed on the job and 38,500 incidents of "high volume" mail theft were tallied in fiscal year 2022. In the first half of the next fiscal year, USPS said it had already seen 305 carriers robbed and more than 25,000 thefts.

The agency said it would replace 49,000 "antiquated arrow locks," which are opened using arrow keys, a master key that people have swindled to steal bundles of mail and commit financial crimes.

Mail thefts have been linked to stolen checks across the nation. While the use of checks has declined as more people opt to use credit and debit cards or mobile banking apps, they are generally written for substantial amounts, averaging at $2,430, according to the Federal Reserve Payments Study.

Missouri man admitted he tried to bribe postal carriers for master keys

Dwaundre Valley, 21, of Bridgeton, Missouri, pleaded guilty in October to bribing a postal carrier, federal prosecutors said. He admitted to offering three postal carriers payments in March and April of 2022 for master keys, or arrow keys, that open mail collection boxes.

Valley’s attorney, Joel Schwartz, told USA TODAY he was disappointed by the sentencing as Valley had "kept out of trouble" after the bribery incident and learned his lesson. Schwartz said he agreed with the U.S. Attorney’s Office that Valley’s case was part of a "much larger-scale problem" of mail safety issues.

In a sentencing memo, assistant U.S. attorney Jonathan Clow said Valley’s bribery attempts come as more mail thefts have been reported across the nation.

"Mail theft has real consequences for the community. It undermines the public’s sense of security and confidence in a vital government service," Clow wrote.

Prosecutors: North Carolina man stole from residents' mailboxes

A few states away in the U.S. District Court, Western District of North Carolina, Douglas Gumbs, 38, faced prison time after admitting to postal crimes on Thursday.

From February 2022 to April 2023, Gumbs and Soheil Akhavan Rezaie stole hundreds of packages from people’s mailboxes in and around Charlotte, North Carolina, federal prosecutors said. Gumbs altered the amounts on the checks and changed the names of the payees to his own, which he then deposited and withdrew before his victims noticed the checks were stolen, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

Bank fraud carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine. Rezaie was convicted earlier of related charges and sentenced to 57 months in prison.

An attorney for Gumbs declined to comment on his plea when reached by USA TODAY.

Other recent cases in federal court around mail fraud include a Virginia man who, along with another person, stole $85,000 in fraudulent withdrawals using stolen mail obtained by stealing arrow keys, along with 83 checks, nine credit or debit cards, and six U.S. savings bonds. Olden Ellerbe III, 24, pleaded guilty on Feb. 16 to the mail theft and bank fraud scheme.

On the same day, Shawn Fuller, 37, pleaded guilty to stealing mail while working as a mail carrier in Meriden, Connecticut. The U.S. Attorney's Office said an investigator saw Fuller open two packages at the post office and put them in his car.

Watchdog agency audit of USPS response to mail thefts

As complaints of mail theft mount across the nation, a Postal Service watchdog agency in part blamed the agency's procedures in an audit report released Sept. 28, 2023.

The USPS Office of Inspector General looked at the Postal Service’s ability to prevent mail thefts across five major divisions: Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. between October 2020 and September 2022.

Of the 446 carrier robbery cases reviewed, the report said about half involved the theft of an arrow key. Inspectors also found 585 arrow keys across San Francisco and Chicago offices were missing.

The report said the Postal Service "lacks accountability" for its arrow keys, did not staff enough people to address mail theft, and postal inspectors examining mail theft lacked specialized training.

“These thefts damage the Postal Service’s reputation and diminish public trust in the nation’s mail system,” the audit report said.

Michael Martel, a spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, said the law enforcement agency and USPS launched Project Safe Delivery in May 2023 to address the rise in postal crimes.

Between May and October 2023, Martel said the Inspection Service made 109 arrests for robberies and more than 530 arrests for mail thefts. Over 10,000 blue collection boxes have been swapped out with high-security boxes, he added, and thousands of arrow locks have been replaced with ones that have an electronic component that criminals can’t duplicate.

“This is intended to devalue the very thing criminals are looking for in robberies of our letter carrier, their postal keys,” Martel told USA TODAY.

The Inspection Service has also reviewed security at postal facilities, presented guidance on safety to postal workers, and tripled its maximum reward to $150,000 for information on the robbery of a letter carrier, he noted.

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Safeguarding yourself from mail theft

The Inspection Service recommends some extra steps to protect yourself from mail theft:

  • Pick up mail promptly

  • Avoid sending cash or gift cards

  • Ask about overdue mail

  • Request signature confirmation

  • File a change of address when you move

  • Hold packages at the local post office if you can’t be home for pickup

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USPS mail theft cases: Here's how to protect yourself