Pam Wasserman thought she was being careful when she mailed checks on behalf of her company in September.
Working from home amid the pandemic, the Silver Spring, Maryland, nonprofit executive didn’t want to enter a post office. Instead, she said she checked the pickup time on the blue mailbox closest to her house and made sure to drop the payments inside just before the carrier was due to arrive.
What she wasn’t expecting, however, is someone other than a postal worker to arrive first — a mail thief. A neighbor said she saw the heist happen, but Wasserman didn’t find out about the theft until she read about it on the neighborhood listserv later that day. By the time she alerted her company’s chief financial officer, four of the checks she mailed had been cashed for nearly $9,000.
“It’s infuriating,” she told the News4 I-Team, adding that she then began researching the frequency of such crimes. “It's more common than we all knew.”
In addition to incidents around Montgomery County, the News4 I-Team has fielded a number of complaints this year from people who said they were defrauded after mailing checks in collection boxes outside post offices in Bowie and Glenn Dale.
But just how much and how often mail is stolen from United States Postal Service property — and the method thieves are using to take it each time — is unclear.
Michael Martel, spokesman for the United States Postal Inspection Service, confirmed his agency is investigating reports of mail theft in and around Prince George’s and Montgomery counties but did not give a specific number of incidents.
What’s more, a NBC News investigation in September found inspectors don’t have a precise system for tracking and sorting complaints about mail theft, leaving the scope of the problem unknown.
“The safety and security of the U.S. mail is a top priority of postal inspectors,” Martel told the I-Team. “The Postal Service delivers millions of pieces of mail on time every day. The number of pieces stolen would be a very, very small portion of that.”
Thieves access mail using stolen 'arrow keys'
In many cases, inspectors acknowledge, thieves are accessing mail in blue boxes using stolen “arrow keys” — a type of universal key used by mail carriers and collectors that can unlock several blue mailboxes, apartment panels or parcel lockers in any given area. It’s illegal for anyone but a postal worker to possess them.
An August audit by the Office of Inspector General for the United States Postal Service criticized the agency’s management of the keys as “ineffective,” noting, “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.”
In response, the Postal Service noted it has issued guidance for “key accountability” and is conducting a study to determine whether creating a nationwide inventory of keys is feasible.
Chris Clark, who witnessed the mail theft involving Pam Wasserman’s checks, told News4 the man she observed appeared to have such a key.
She said she can see the mailbox through her window and took notice last September when she saw a man who wasn’t wearing a postal uniform open the box and dump the mail in a paper shopping bag, leaving no damage behind. Clark said she confronted the man on the street.
“I said, ‘You just stole all the mail!’” she recounted to the I-Team. “He said ‘no’ and got in the car, and they sped off.”
A News4 I-Team review of recent cases of alleged mail theft reveals how keys have played a role in check-fraud schemes.
Authorities say Michael Packer and Rodney Jefferson robbed mail carriers — sometimes at gunpoint — and stole at least nine arrow keys beginning in late 2018. According to court records, the men are accused of using them to access mailboxes in Prince George’s County and parts of D.C., stealing more than 1,000 checks and defrauding victims out of at least $150,000.
An attorney for Packer declined comment to News4, though court records show he has entered a plea of not guilty. Jefferson’s attorney also declined comment.
In another case, Charles County sheriff’s deputies raided Joel Super’s Camp Springs apartment in February and found a USPS arrow key, more than 100 checks written out to and from various people, as well as debit and social security cards belonging to people other than himself.
Authorities say Super stole mail from at least a half dozen mailboxes in Waldorf to steal and alter checks he later cashed. He’s currently awaiting trial for bank fraud. His attorney declined to say how he’ll plead.
Connie Cronin isn’t sure how the 18 checks her husband mailed outside the Glenn Dale Post Office in March were stolen, but she knows how difficult it’s been to repair their finances.
She first knew something was wrong when her debit card was declined while buying groceries. She later found out that a check they had previously mailed to a medical provider for $12 had been altered and cashed for $4,900.
None of the 18 checks they mailed made it to their destination, she said, leading them to believe they were all taken by the same person. A check of her neighborhood listserv found she wasn’t alone.
“I thought we were the only people that had complained about stolen mail and forged checks, but not so,” she told News4. “Something has to be done.”
Martel, the postal inspector, said mail thieves typically use solvents and razor blades to remove ink on checks and alter them. He said that, when USPIS receives reports of theft, inspectors conduct a security review — especially when a box may have been improperly accessed with an arrow key. He added the Postal Service replaces mailboxes damaged during attempted break-ins with boxes that have enhanced “anti-theft” technology.
The Postal Service is also now placing red stickers on the mailboxes that warn people not to drop off mail past the daily collection time, instead encouraging them to drop mail off inside a postal office.
Pam Wasserman said that’s what she’s doing now, just in case. In the meantime, she’s still hoping the person who stole her company’s checks is brought to justice.
“I hope they catch the person,” she said, adding, “People just want to have trust in the Postal Service.”
To report incidents of suspected mail theft, call 1-877-876-2455 and select #3.
Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Katie Leslie, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper. Photographers Steve Jones and Evan Carr contributed to this report.