The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is facing a surge in crimes targeting its operations, leading experts to caution against sending checks through the mail. The USPS has recently reported an uptick in attacks on letter carriers and incidents of mail fraud, with 305 mail carriers being robbed in the first half of fiscal year 2023. This pace is on track to surpass the previous year’s record of 412 robberies. Simultaneously, fraudsters are specifically targeting mailboxes, either by stealing letters directly from residents’ homes or from the blue USPS collection boxes.
The increase in crimes targeting postal carriers and mailboxes poses a heightened risk of stolen mailed checks, as evidenced by documented incidents across the country. For example, a criminal ring in Milwaukee was recently busted after a series of thefts from blue collection boxes. The suspects allegedly used stolen “arrow keys,” which are universal USPS keys that open mail collection boxes, to pilfer more than 900 checks, as stated in a criminal complaint.
In response to these theft issues, the USPS advises Americans to refrain from depositing mail in blue collection boxes or leaving it in their own mailboxes for pickup by carriers. Instead, the agency now recommends that patrons visit their local post office to securely send mail. Experts endorse this advisory, suggesting that individuals only mail checks at the post office or through secure mail drops rather than unsecured public-facing mailboxes.
The rise in mail theft is part of a broader national trend of increased crime patterns, according to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. In 2021 alone, approximately 300,000 complaints about mail theft were reported, more than double the previous year’s total. Criminals target mail carriers and steal their deliveries, while others use arrow keys to access postal boxes and steal letters, checks, and valuables. A 2020 report from the USPS’s Office of Inspector General revealed concerns about the security of collection boxes, as the agency lacked information on the number of arrow keys in circulation or those that had been stolen.
The USPS recommends that individuals promptly retrieve both incoming and outgoing mail from their mailboxes to reduce the chance of victimization. Posting mail inside the local post office or workplace and handing it directly to a mail carrier are also recommended options. However, the USPS has not issued specific guidance regarding mailing checks, according to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
The consequences of stolen checks can be significant. Thieves employ a method called “check washing” in which they use chemicals to erase the original writing on a check, such as the recipient’s name and the amount. Once the check is blank, they can fill in new information, including a different amount. Numerous cases have been reported, such as checks initially written for small amounts being cashed for thousands of dollars or cases of widespread check fraud involving millions of dollars.
Although check usage is declining, with 3.4 billion checks written in 2022 compared to 19 billion in 1990, it still provides ample opportunity for criminals to engage in fraudulent activities. Therefore, taking precautions and avoiding mailing checks can help protect against potential risks.