COLUMBUS, Ohio — With an elevated number of mail thefts happening across the country, many are beginning to ask: "who is responsible for protecting mail and fighting against theft?"
The group that once stood at the frontlines protecting employees, customers and their property was pulled back at the direction of the United States Postal Inspection Service in 2020.
Postal police officers are stationed all across the country in postal facilities, but their time helping prevent thefts in the actual streets is over. Unless they’re granted special permission, the officers’ jurisdiction is limited to mail facilities.
This was changed after the reinterpretation of the officers’ jurisdiction over “postal property.”
But, according to an audit by the Inspector General for the USPS in 2021, mail theft complaints increased by 161% from March 2020 to February 2021.
"Is our mail safe right now? Right now, in Ohio, your mail is in jeopardy," explained Frank Albergo, National President of the Postal Police Officers Association.
As 10TV's Andrew Kinsey uncovered, you could be a victim and have no idea until the damage is already done.
"I'm flabbergasted, it's going to take me a minute to process this," said Nolan Logan, a local victim of mail theft.
Andrew Kinsey caught up with Logan at his home last month and broke the news that he and his family were caught up in the mail theft scam.
His mother's payment to Columbus Gas was dropped into a USPS collection bin outside the Bexley post office. At some point, the check was stolen and later put up for sale on the dark web.
Here's how the scam works: Thieves will steal mail from either a mailbox outside someone's home or a blue collection bin. Checks found inside the envelopes are "washed" — meaning the ink is erased — so the amount and recipient can be replaced. Those blank checks are then sold online.
Thanks to 10TV's visit, Logan was able to stop payment on his mother's check before it could be washed and used.
The Postal Service has become a breeding ground for what experts are calling a "sophisticated underground criminal operation." It's a problem not only impacting the Columbus area, but cities nationwide.
"We're talking about hundreds of individuals who are involved in this type of crime in our country," said David Maimon, associate professor in the department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Georgia State University.
Maimon is the director of an evidence-based cybersecurity research group at the university. He and his team investigate crime trends involving identity theft and stolen checks, spending hours combing through thousands of social media channels, group chats and dark websites.
Maimon says identity theft and crimes involving stolen checks have increased dramatically.
"Our conservative estimates lead us to believe that between $18-33 million every month ends up in the criminals' hands," Maimon said.
What are lawmakers saying?
Some experts and political leaders say very little is being done to stop the issue.
In a letter from U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and Inspector General Whitcomb Hull on Oct. 14, he wrote, “Postal robberies and mail theft are federal crimes, and federal police officers should patrol postal carrier routes. That responsibility should not be pushed onto overwhelmed local law enforcement personnel. It is imperative that the USPS reverse its wrongheaded decision and immediately restore the patrolling functions of the Postal Police Officers.”
Other U.S. lawmakers, including Rob Portman, also wrote a letter to USPS in May asking questions. They hoped to have an answer back within 30 days for questions that raise concern for the steps being taken to protect the property of the public now that the postal police are removed from dealing with theft incidents directly.
"You would be hard-pressed to find a coherent response from the postal service over why they benched their postal police force," said Albergo.
With nobody addressing the increase in theft, Albergo said he expects the problem will likely get worse.
A finding in a 2021 report shows that the exact number of arrow keys in circulation that are lost, stolen or broken is unknown.
Arrow keys are used to access collection boxes, box units and apartment panels. An estimate by the department suggests the number is likely to be in the millions.
How to avoid mail theft
To protect yourself and your loved ones against mail theft, keep these tips in mind:
Avoid using blue mailboxes. When you have the opportunity, go inside the postal office and drop off your mail.
Use a gel ink pen. Certain types of gel ink cannot be washed off because they permeate below the surface of the paper.
Use online bill pay when possible. This will reduce the number of checks you write. It also reduces exposure to possible fraud.
Monitor bank statements. Your bank statements will include a record of your written checks that have been cashed.