INDIANAPOLIS – A 2021 audit report from the Office of Inspector General shows mail theft complaints increased 161% in March 2020 through February 2021 compared to March 2019 through February 2020.

Now, CBS4 is getting an exclusive look at where a lot of stolen mail is ending up.

“The criminals, in absence of better words, are posting videos of themselves essentially stealing mail from the blue boxes,” Dr. David Maimon, the head of an evidence-based cybersecurity research firm at Georgia State University, said.

Maimon and his team monitor 60 underground online platforms where he claims people are selling and buying commodities often used in fraud.

“We engage in a wide range of projects. One of the projects is understanding dark net environments as well as underground platforms in which criminals engage with each other. This is essentially how we realized this increase in the volume of stolen mail, specifically stolen checks, here in the United States,” explained.

Maimon said his team has discovered counterfeit money, fake documents like driver’s licenses, passports, and insurance cards, forged checks, compromised identities, and more on the dark web.

They have also seen people post countless videos and pictures of stolen mail.

“There is a really interesting video where you see the criminal open the USPS box, take the mail out of the box, then there is another video with another guy showing us how many envelopes they were able to steal from the mailbox. They then drive those envelopes to their hideouts. There are a couple of pictures we see that we downloaded, where we see them sort through the mail looking for the checks,” Maimon told CBS4. “Another picture where they show kind of the market: ow they wash the checks using nail polish remover, drying the checks and then selling the checks on those platforms.”

Maimon said detailed mail theft operations began in Florida, California, and New York but then spread nationwide.

“Can you tell me how often or how much this is happening in Indiana?” CBS4 anchor Angela Brauer asked.

“In Indiana, we actually see fluctuations throughout the last four months. It was relatively high in October, then we saw a drop and another uptick in January,” Maimon responded.

He confirmed his group has been able to track about 100 stolen checks from Indiana per week.

“What the criminals do after they get their hands on the check is they take screenshots. They take pictures of the check and then they upload those checks on the platforms we oversee. We know exactly where the victims live,” he explained.

Across the country, the cybersecurity research firm believes criminals are stealing between $10 and $30 million a month.

“Those estimates are conservative,” Maimon warned.

The research firm believes the individuals involved are working as a group. Some have become violent.

“You have the soldiers who are essentially attacking the mail carriers. They rob them from their mail as well as from the arrow keys. Then, you have folks who actually use the arrow keys to open the mailboxes and chauffeur the mail into the hideouts. You have the soldier who essentially sorts through the mail. They take the pictures, upload on the platforms and then offer the checks for sale. You have soldiers who use the checks to cash them,” Maimon went on. “It’s very detailed.”

The arrow keys are universal mail keys. Carriers use them to open cluster mailboxes and blue collection boxes. Now, criminals are selling them on the dark web for up to $7,000 apiece.

Maimon showed CBS4 several stolen checks from Indiana. Each traced back to local businesses and ranged between $296 and more than $1,000. None of the businesses were willing to comment.

“What would you tell the average American who is going to walk to their mailbox and is going to send checks out, pay their bills?” CBS4 asked.

“I would strongly recommend, at this point, not to leave your mail at the blue mailboxes or at USPS mailboxes. Based on what I know and based on the findings we have, you might as well leave your mail with the clerks,” Maimon concluded.

Hoosier homeowners confirm they, too, have been victims of mail theft

The social media app “Nextdoor” is filled with people reporting mail theft.

In January, CBS4 spoke with a homeowner along Concert Lane who caught the criminal act on camera.

“I came in, and I checked our cameras and I’m like ‘Well, it is! It’s a mail thief! He’s sitting right in front of our house just checking the mail!’” she exclaimed.

The homeowner, Ashley Gosman, said she and a neighbor collected loose mail the thief had discarded and returned it to the mail carrier.

Another homeowner – who only wanted to be identified as Rachel – said someone stole a check from her mailbox the day she tried to send it. Her friend had just had a baby, so she was sending the money as a gift.

“My son put it in the mailbox with the flag up,” she recalled. “I didn’t think anything of it. The next day, I looked at my bank account online and it said there had been a $250 check cashed. I was so confused.”

Rachel said the check she had filled out wasn’t for $250.

“Thank goodness you can look at the copy online. It had a name on it that I didn’t recognize. It had handwriting that I didn’t recognize, except the date was in my handwriting and some of the memo was in my handwriting,” she told CBS4.

Rachel filed a police report. At the bank, she said the teller admitted seeing several washed check cases in 2022.

“I guess the little red flag really is a little red flag. I guess people will really drive around looking for that,” she said.

CBS4 confirms an uptick in violence against mail carriers

A public record request through the US Postal Inspection Service showed 7,290 reports of violent criminal activity involving mail carriers in the fiscal year 2020. The USPIS said the statistics included two homicides of on-duty USPS employees, at least 140 robberies, 202 burglaries, and 631 credible assaults and threats.

Another public record showed 261 robberies against mail carriers in 2021. CBS4 counted 13 wanted posters the USPS has issued so far in 2022, each for assault against a carrier. One wanted poster was issued in Indianapolis after someone robbed a mail carrier at gunpoint on April 1st.  It happened around 7:20 pm along South Reisner Street on the southwest side.

“This is not a one-off,” Paul Toms, the president of the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 39, said in an interview. “In the last four or five months or so, there have been four other carriers in the Indianapolis area that have been robbed.”

Toms said the criminals were after the carriers’ arrow keys.

“This is the worst it's ever been,” he said.

The postal service refuses to comment

CBS4 sent the local USPS two emails asking at least seven questions and for an on-camera interview. A spokesperson referred us to the US Postal Inspection Service.

The USPIS confirmed a ride in mail theft reports but could not confirm where or how many mail theft complaints had originated in Indiana.

Tips to protect yourself against mail and package theft

Promptly pickup mail

Try not to leave letters and packages in your mailbox or at your door for any length of time.

Deposit mail close to pickup time

Deposit outgoing mail into USPS® Blue Collection Boxes before the last collection or inside your local Post Office™.

Inquire about overdue mail

If you do not receive a check, credit card, or other valuable mail you’re expecting, contact the sender as soon as possible and inquire about it.

Don't send cash

Be careful about what you send. Don’t risk sending cash in the mail.

Arrange for prompt pickup

If you cannot be home to receive a package, make another arrangement or use the USPS Hold Mail Service.

Use Hold for Pickup

When shipping packages, use the Hold for PickUp option, and the recipients can collect the package at their local Post Office™.

Request signature confirmation

When mailing something important, consider requesting Signature Confirmation™ for the intended recipient.

File a change of address

If you move, make sure you file a change of address with the Postal Service and let your financial institutions know as well.

A team leader sent the following email:

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s mission is to support and protect the U.S. Postal Service and its employees, infrastructure, and customers; enforce the laws that defend our nation’s mail system from illegal or dangerous use; and ensure public trust in mail. U.S. Postal Inspectors takes seriously its role to safeguard America and will continue to aggressively pursue perpetrators that use the U.S. Mail system to further their illegal activity. Every day, the U.S. Postal Service safely and efficiently delivers millions of checks, money orders, credit cards and merchandise. Unfortunately, such items are also attractive to thieves and that is why Postal Inspectors across the country are at work to protect your mail.  

Please visit our website at https://www.uspis.gov/tips-prevention/mail-theft to learn about prevention methods to help protect customers against mail and package theft.

If someone believes their mail was stolen, please report it by calling the U.S. Postal Inspection Service at 877-876-2455.