It may not be safe to mail checks anymore. U.S. Postal Service shares tips to fight rise in crime.

Mike Snider
  • More than 300 mail carriers were robbed from Oct. 1, 2022 to March 31, 2023, a higher rate than the previous year, the U.S. Postal Service says.
  • Mail thefts are on the rise, too, with more than 25,000 cases from Oct. 1, 2022 to March 31, 2023, the USPS says.
  • The Postal Service is taking steps to combat crime, but some experts say more needs to be done and that consumers should be careful in mailing personal checks.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night, the adage goes, will stop postal workers from delivering the mail. But what about armed robbery?

The U.S. Postal Service is taking steps to tamp down an increase in robberies of mail carriers and in mail theft, both of which have contributed to a rise in check fraud. While the U.S. Postal Service has not officially warned customers about putting personal checks in the mail, some experts are suggesting folks use caution when sending checks.

"Where it's possible to pay things through online means, that's definitely something to consider, it may be more secure to pay through online," Chuck Bell, programs director, advocacy, for Consumer Reports, told USA TODAY. "I mean there's problems with that as well, but you would avoid the risk of having the check intercepted and cashed by someone else."

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A rise in crime

Mail carrier Edward Medley of Groveport, Ohio, loads his delivery truck with mail and packages for his Obetz route behind the South Columbus, Ohio branch of the United States Postal Service on March 10, 2021.

Between Oct. 1, 2021 and Sept. 30, 2022 (the Postal Service's 2022 fiscal year), 412 letter carriers were robbed while on duty. That has increased to 305 incidents from Oct. 1, 2022 to March 31, 2023 (the first half of the current fiscal year), the Postal Service said in May.

Mail thefts of high volume, including from blue collection boxes, rose from 38,500 in fiscal year 2022 to more than 25,000 in the first half of fiscal year 23, the Postal Service said.

"The Postal Service and Postal Inspection Service have seen an increase in robberies of letter carriers and mail theft, as crime has risen across the country," said Michael Martel, U.S. postal inspector and national public information officer for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, in a statement to USA TODAY. The Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) is the law enforcement, crime prevention, and security arm of the Postal Service.

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What is the Postal Service doing to combat mail theft?

In May, the Postal Service and USPIS released its plans to bolster protection for Postal Service employees and facilities and prevent mail theft, but the agencies are not recommending customers avoid putting checks in the mail, despite some media reports to that effect, Martel said.

Included in the Postal Service and Postal Inspection Service plans:

  • More secure collection boxes: The Postal Service plans to deploy 12,000 high-security collection boxes, which are more difficult for criminals to break into.
  • Electronic locks: The Postal Service is replacing 49,000 older locks that use keys with electronic locks. Thieves have robbed letter carriers for the keys to steal mail from secure mail receptacles, the Postal Service says.

But some in Congress don't think the agencies are being aggressive enough about mail theft and protecting mail carriers. "I am concerned about the thousands of dollars that a single family could lose if a check is stolen. And I am concerned about the safety of our hardworking postal carriers targeted by senseless crime," Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., told Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in a subcommittee hearing on the Postal Service in May.

A bipartisan legislation called the Postal Police Reform Act, introduced in the U.S. House in May, would give Postal Police officers more authority to protect the mail system. "We must do more to combat rising mail crime, and that starts by getting our Postal Police back on the street where they can more effectively do their jobs," said Rep. Andrew R. Garbarino, R-N.Y. "The longer this senseless directive stays in place, the longer mail theft and violence against mail carriers continues to escalate."

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Letter Carrier Steve Homa loads up his mail truck with letters and packages for delivery at the post office in Chatham, Illinois, on East Walnut Street Tuesday Dec. 13, 2022.

Should you be concerned about mail theft?

At Consumer Reports, Bell takes the problem seriously because he was a victim of mail theft and check fraud in November 2021. Thieves stole a heating bill from a collection box and – after apparently doctoring it – cashed it for $25,000.

Here's how thieves steal your mail, in addition to armed robbery of mail carriers:

  • Glue traps: Thieves use a sticky substance on the door of the mail box to catch mail, which they can come get at night.
  • Mailbox fishing. Another method simply involves lowering strings with something to trap and gather mail. The concept is similar to the arcade and midway "crane game," in which you try to capture a gift with a claw. In September 2019, police in New Milford, New Jersey, police arrested three men who were using glue traps and other ways to fish mail out of mailboxes. After a wave of mail thefts began in New York City in 2016, the Postal Service began replacing some blue boxes with more secure boxes with only a slot and no door.

Once thieves steal mail and find checks, they attempt to wash them with chemicals to remove handwritten ink and replace it with different payees and amounts.

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Some mail theft is committed by sophisticated criminal operations that infiltrate postal distribution centers, set up fake businesses and create fake IDs to deposit checks. Some criminals use stolen checks to gather more personal data about potential victims to create fake entities to open new lines of credit. In one case in Southern California last year, nearly 60 people were arrested on charges of committing more than $5 million in check fraud against 750 people.

Use of checks has declined as more consumers opt to pay with credit and debit cards. Americans wrote roughly 3.4 billion checks in 2022, down from nearly 19 billion checks in 1990, according to the Federal Reserve. But when we write checks, they are for larger amounts: up from $673, on average, in 1990 – or $1,602 in today’s dollars – to $2,652 last year.

“Despite the declining use of checks in the United States, criminals have been increasingly targeting the U.S. Mail since the COVID-19 pandemic to commit check fraud,” wrote The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, a part of the Treasury Department, in an alert sent in February.

Bell isn't sure how his check was stolen, "but it was like one day or two days after I mailed it that I got the bank alert," he said.

"I reported it and (the bank) gave me the money back," Bell said, "but it really sobered me up about the whole thing. If I'm going to mail a check now, I take it to the post office."

Caitlin Driscoll of the Better Business Bureau told CBS Pittsburgh something similar in its recent news story about mail theft and check fraud. "If you are choosing to mail a check, it is always recommended that you use a secure mail drop such as inside a post office versus an unsecured public-facing mailbox," she said. 

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Tips to prevent mail theft

The Postal Service has several suggestions to help prevent mail theft and harm to mail carriers:

  • Don’t let mail sit in your mailbox. Retrieve it daily.
  • Don't drop mail into a collection box at night. Take it into a post office.
  • You can sign up for Informed Delivery and the Postal Service will send you a preview of what mail and packages are coming.
  • If you are going out of town, sign up to have your mail held at the post office.
  • Be involved in your neighborhood and tell others about mail theft and potential threats to mail carriers.
  • Watch for your mail carrier and if you see something that looks suspicious, or someone following your carrier, call 911.  

Contributing: Grace Hauck, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.

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