Before a spike in mail theft from Postal Service mailboxes was recently detected in Greater Boston, police in Mattapoisett noticed a troubling trend.
Checks were disappearing from the mail.
Residents who used the Postal Service mailboxes outside the local post office were discovering fraudulent activity in their bank accounts, their checks plucked from the blue collection bins, rewritten to different people for larger amounts of money, and deposited or cashed out of state.
And this small town south of Boston was by no means alone, as officials warn that thieves continue to target USPS mailboxes during the holiday season.
“It seems like it’s pretty rampant across the state,” said Mattapoisett Police Chief Jason King, who said the altered checks stolen from town totaled more than $250,000.
In response to the thefts, police began watching the mailboxes and waited for the thieves to return. On the morning of Aug. 19, their surveillance operation paid off, when two teenagers from Dorchester were allegedly caught trying to fish envelopes from the mailboxes.
Joseph Herrera Rodriguez and Jorman Aybar, both 18, allegedly got into a white Acura and struck a police cruiser as they tried to escape, police said. They eventually fled on foot and were caught and placed under arrest.
“All they were doing was taking a Listerine bottle on string and putting sticky material on it,” King said. “They were just putting it in and pulling mail out.”
King said his department is working with law enforcement in Georgia, where some of the stolen checks ended up.
Authorities say criminals can turn stolen checks into cash through a process known as “check washing.” Scammers have been known to use chemicals to remove ink from checks so they can change the payee names and dollar amounts before depositing or cashing them, or they use copiers or scanners to print out fake checks.
Thieves are also using keys to break into USPS mailboxes, police say.
That was the case this month in Wellesley, where police have received an influx of reports of fraud related to stolen checks.
“Recent investigations have shown that mail thieves have obtained keys to the blue USPS mailboxes,” Wellesley police said Tuesday.
After mail was reported stolen in Needham last weekend, police urged anyone who placed checks in post office mailboxes between Saturday afternoon and Monday morning to contact their financial institutions and “take the necessary steps to protect the accounts related to those specific checks.”
A key was also most likely used to break into a USPS mailbox in Weston in November, according to Police Detective William Carlo.
The mailbox was a newer model with enhanced security features, which leads him to believe that a key was used to open it. Multiple pieces of mail went missing and many people were affected, he said.
“We had 20 to 30 victims that we’re aware of,” Carlo said.
Tammy Whitcomb Hull, the inspector general for the US Postal Service, recently addressed the growing concerns about mail theft at a hearing before a US House of Representatives subcommittee.
She said one of the reasons for increased theft has been the postal service’s poor management of “arrow keys,” universal keys used by letter carriers to open collection boxes.
Postal service supervisors assign these keys — generally one per route — to letter carriers for more than 300,000 routes each day. Carriers are supposed to keep these keys secured and attached to their belts or clothing by a chain while on duty and return them at the end of each day.
But according to a USPS audit from 2020, management of the arrow keys has been “ineffective.”
“Specifically, the number of arrow keys in circulation is unknown, and local units did not adequately report lost, stolen, or broken keys or maintain key inventories,” the report stated. “Further, the Postal Service did not restrict the number of replacement arrow keys that could be ordered. Ineffective controls over arrow keys increases the risk that these items will be lost or stolen and not detected.”
Back in Mattapoisett, more secure mailboxes have been installed at the post office and King hopes they will deter thieves.
The two Dorchester residents who were arrested are facing multiple charges.
Rodriguez was charged with breaking into a depository with intent to commit a felony; assault and battery with a dangerous weapon; larceny over $1,200; failing to stop for a police officer; operating a motor vehicle to endanger; and speeding.
Aybar was charged with breaking into a depository with intent to commit a felony and larceny over $1,200.