USPS fights back against ‘fishers’ with new mailboxes

Two of the new mailboxes at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street are considered higher security due to a slit for inserting mail rather than a pull-out handle. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

Mailbox fishing, a type of theft aimed at stealing checks that can later be altered, has just gotten harder.

This is because the United States Postal Services is currently in the process of replacing 5,000 mail collection boxes throughout the city with higher-security models. Xavier Hernandez, a spokesperson for the USPS, said the project is being done in coordination with law enforcement agencies.

The main difference between the old boxes and new is that there is no longer a pull-down handle, but a narrow slot where letters can be inserted and dropped. Areas throughout the five boroughs that are considered “high needs” because they have been popular targets for theft, have been getting their mailboxes replaced first.

The USPS can usually tell when their collection boxes have been tampered with, because they are scratched up or have glue inside or in some cases, evidence of someone having tried to pry off the fronts. Hernandez declined to share which neighborhoods were considered high-need, explaining that thieves have managed to exploit that information. Tips on suspected theft have come from the NYPD, postal employees and customers who call if they believe they’ve had a check stolen.

Meanwhile, in some cases, only parts of mailboxes will need to be replaced because they’ve had other security enhancements in the past two years. But those that haven’t are getting replaced in their entirety with what the agency calls “the Cadillac of mailboxes,” each with a price tag of about $800. Asked what the USPS is shelling out for the entire city’s stock, Hernandez said that it isn’t yet clear because it will depend on how many boxes will need to be completely replaced. The project is being paid for by the USPS, which doesn’t receive taxpayer money, despite being a federal agency. There isn’t a scheduled finish date for the new mailbox rollout, but according to Hernandez, it is considered a priority with new mailboxes being installed each day.

Mailbox fishing usually involves lowering a bottle covered in glue or a rodent glue trap into mailboxes to look for envelopes containing checks. Once checks are obtained, they can be “washed” to remove the recipient’s name and add someone else’s and often to change the amount, before being fraudulently deposited.

People who’ve been arrested for mailbox fishing by the 13th Precinct in the past have also frequently been charged with identity theft in connection with stealing and “washing” checks.

Donna Harris of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service said there have been no reported fishing incidents in the zip codes of 10009 and 100010 (Stuyvesant Town and Gramercy) since five people were arrested last year. While it is not considered a high-needs area, both neighborhoods are expected to have all their mailboxes replaced by the end of February or March.

“Any amount of theft is something we take seriously,” said Harris. “We look at any complaint, no matter how small, no matter how large, we investigate.”

The problem, she said, began in The Bronx a couple of years ago. The majority of fishing stemmed back to gang activity, although fishers came in all different age groups. As the problem grew, the USPS decided to replace all its boxes with the higher security ones which were manufactured last year.

The USPS has also focused on encouraging customers to bring their mail out before the day’s last scheduled pickup, which is posted on each mailbox. That way the mail doesn’t sit overnight.

“They’re high security boxes, designed to be anti-fishing, but nothing is 100 percent,” said Harris.

Along with checks that can be altered, thieves are also happy to take credit cards and any other financial document with identifying information.

“That’s why it’s so important for us to change these boxes as quickly as possible,” Harris said.

Meanwhile, fishing can result in up to five years in federal prison and/or a fine that could vary based on what was stolen. Whether the crime is considered petty or grand larceny also varies by state.

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