News

Bold thieves stealing people's mail, money and identities

By ERICA HALL

Staff writer

Larry and Cindy Gates never had any reason to question the integrity of their mail box.

As long as they’ve lived in their Northeast Tacoma-area home, they’ve been writing checks to pay their bills and dropping them in the mail box.

The mail carrier has always picked their mail up and taken it to the post office, where their bills were sorted and routed to their final destinations.

But in the past year, someone besides the mail man got into the Gates’ mail box.

Whoever it was stole the Gates’ mail, got their bank account number and made a batch of counterfeit checks. They also made a fake drivers license.

Fortunately, Cindy Gates checks their bank account on-line every day. About a month ago, she noticed that two checks had cleared that the couple had never written.

They acted quickly and closed the account, but even after they did, several more checks were returned. Gates has had to contact merchants and credit agencies to explain the checks were counterfeits and to fill out affidavits of forgery.

“It’s been kind of crazy, that’s for sure,” Gates said. “Credit agencies are pretty understanding to a point. It’s been a battle to get this straightened out.”

He said the identity burglars didn’t get his Social Security number, so they haven’t opened any new credit accounts in his name.

Gates has called Federal Way Police, but he hasn’t had much luck. “The police basically can’t do anything,” he said.

He and two of his neighbors have started getting locking mail boxes, but he estimated less than a quarter of the people in his neighborhood have them.

For about $165, Gates bought a metal, locked box on-line, with a mail slot that’s too narrow for a hand to fit through. The box itself is too deep to reach the bottom.

The couple have the key to open the box and retrieve their mail, but they have to send their outgoing mail from a secured box.

Gates said more than 40 families in his neighborhood have had their mail stolen, and two in addition to are victims of identity theft.

He’d been aware of mail theft before his mail was stolen, but didn’t think it would ever happen to his family.

“It’s a nice neighborhood,” he said. “I guess we just didn’t think about it.”

Postal inspector Jeff Scobda said it’s important that people send mail out from an official, secure place, like the blue U.S. Postal Service boxes or from post offices, to protect their private information from theft.

“It’s not just annoying when it happens to you,” he said. “You have to contact everyone. It’s a major problem for someone when it happens to them.”

The postal service investigates mail theft to determine if a theft is an isolated incident or if it’s a wider spread problem in a particular neighborhood, but it’s hard for letter carriers to prevent it from happening.

“We deliver billions of pieces of mail every day,” Scobda said.

Still, letter carriers are stung when mail is stolen.

“I think they do take it personally,” Scobda said. “They take a lot of pride in what they do. They keep their eyes open and put forth a lot of effort.”

He added that stealing checks alone is sort of outdated. Now, mail burglars want to get to a person’s identity to empty accounts and open new lines of credit.

Gates thinks there’s an organized group working together to steal mail, but police aren’t so sure. Federal Way Police spokeswoman Stacy Flores said the incident is under investigation.

Over the past several weeks, Gates said he and his wife have seen vehicles approach the mail boxes and quickly drive away when the occupants see someone is watching them. Three times, he said, he’s seen someone remove mail.

Several of the neighbors whose mail was stolen have filed a report with the police. Just last week, another neighbor asked the Gates for the case number because someone wrote a $5,000 check on their bank account.

An observant neighborhood watcher, Gates took down license plate numbers and gave them to police, only to learn the plates are attached to stolen vehicles.

Gates expressed frustration at the level of police involvement to help stop whoever is stealing the mail, particularly when motorcycle officers wait on neighboring streets for speeders.

“It’s an ongoing problem, happening every single day,” he said. “If they’d just wait out here one day, they’d probably catch someone.”

Flores said the Police Department doesn’t keep track of mail theft specifically. Stealing mail falls under the category of theft generally, so to find out how many mail theft incidents there have been, officials would have to go through every theft report in the city.

She added that mail theft is difficult to prosecute because people don’t know who’s stealing their mail. In fact, sometimes people don’t even know their mail is being stolen until they find fraudulent activity on their bank account or, worse, they try to open a new line of credit and they’re denied.

“They come home and just think they didn’t get any mail that day,” Flores said.

When mail burglars steal mail, they’re looking for pieces of personal information –– names, addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers and account numbers, all of which can be found on one outgoing check, depending on how much information the potential victim has printed on the checks.

The mail burglars then either make counterfeit checks with the information they find or soak the ink off checks and re-write them.

If they get enough information and a pre-approved credit card application, they can open an account using the victim’s name and their own address. They then max out the credit cards on a line of credit the victim doesn’t even know exists.

The Federal Trade Commission received more than 86,000 complaints in 2001 from victims of identity theft, the most prevalent form being credit card fraud. In more than 60 percent of the cases, the identity burglars had set up new credit card accounts in their victims’ names.

Mail burglars rack up tremendous debts, buying home electronics and cars, for example. And when they fail to pay the credit card bills, the perpetrator isn’t the one whose name is on the account — it’s the victim.

Sometimes, identity thieves don’t even bother opening new accounts. They just charge goods and services on their victims’ existing accounts.

According to Federal Trade Commission data, 2,633 victims in 2001 said they’d lost money out-of-pocket because of identity theft. Credit card fraud cost companies $1.1 billion in 2000.

Even though the victim isn’t at fault, the hit to his or her credit can be devastating. Victims of identity theft frequently have a hard time getting loans or being approved for credit cards because of the black marks on their credit history.

In some cases, identity thieves assume someone’s name and address and then get caught committing a crime. The next time the victim is pulled over for speeding, he or she gets arrested and thrown in jail.

In almost 1,300 complaints reported to the FTC in 2001, the victims themselves said they’d been subjected to criminal investigation, arrest or conviction as a result of the actions of the people who’d stolen their identities.

And mail boxes aren’t the only site where identity theft can occur.

Garbage cans or waste paper baskets frequently contain discarded bills or letters from which thieves can glean all sorts of personal information.

Computers also are at risk, as are employee files and wallets or purses.

Mail and identity theft is a growing problem all over the country.

Scobda said people should drop outgoing mail into secure blue collection box, take it to the post office or drop it off at a work mail room where a postal carrier picks up the mail.

As for incoming mail, he said people should try to pick it up as soon possible.

He added that people should always balance their check books and read over credit card statements to catch any discrepancies early.

“You have to show due diligence, make sure all the items are really something you’ve done,” he said. “Those are the best ways to stop identity theft.”

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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