The Thief Is In The Mail

Mar 2 22:00 2004 Identity Theft 911 Print This Article

29 January 2004The car doors slam. The wheels screech. The ... pilot the speeding car down the pavement into the ... a crash is heard. That's when the public service message appears at the

29 January 2004
The car doors slam. The wheels screech. The teenagers pilot the speeding car down the pavement into the darkness; a crash is heard. That's when the public service message appears at the bottom of the TV screen: Lock your car. Take your keys.It seems strange today to think that once upon a time,Guest Posting people needed to be told that leaving their keys in an unlocked car might be a bad idea. At the time, though, the wake-up call was very much in order. The world was changing fast. So were the risks of living in it.Flash forward 40 years to Memphis, Tennessee, in the early years of the 21st century. A 49-year-old woman stares at the surveillance monitor, watching in disbelief as a surreal scene unfolds on her front porch. A man bundled up in a heavy jacket and hat rings the bell, then knocks loudly on the door. Getting no answer, he glances at the silent intercom, calmly removes the outgoing mail from her mailbox, and walks away.It's 10:00 a.m., and Bethany Overton's identity has just been stolen. Also missing is the updated version of that government warning:Lock your mailbox. Take your keys.Identity theft: Not just an online crime
Identity theft is America's fastest-growing crime. Last year alone, more than 9.9 million Americans were victims of identity theft — a 41 percent increase over the year before — at a cost to the U.S. economy of roughly $53 billion. In reality, the number of identity theft victims and the economic impact of the various crimes involved — from mail theft to Internet fraud — were probably even higher. And as identity thieves find new ways of stealing people's identifying information and new ways of abusing it, these crimes are expected to proliferate at an even faster rate.It's commonly assumed that the current fraud epidemic has its roots online. In fact, identity theft often begins with mail theft: letters and packages stolen from unlocked or unprotected mailboxes — often placed along rural or suburban roads or grouped in front of apartment buildings, where access is easy and oversight is nil.For an identity thief, the haul can be substantial: credit cards, driver's licenses, bank statements, boxes of unused checks, Social Security payments, health insurance cards, tax information, and other sensitive data. The criminals then leverage this information to exploit existing accounts or to create new ones. They may use chemical agents to remove handwritten information from stolen checks, which are then repurposed and cashed. They run up bills, pass bad checks, buy cars and houses, engage in various other criminal practices — and, in the end, pin the whole mess on you.Besides ease of access, mail thieves have another big advantage: the time it can take you to realize that something is amiss. When outbound letters vanish, it's assumed that they're headed for their destination; the disappearance of inbound mail generally passes unnoticed. Depending on the data that the thieves manage to grab, your first sign of fraud might come as quickly as your next credit card statement — assuming that it gets to you at all — or months later, when the IRS or the FBI come looking for someone with your Social Security number who's run afoul of the law.Not that the perpetrators necessarily come off as career criminals. "He looked like your typical neighbor," Beth Overton said of the 30ish man who strode off with her mail. "He didn't look thuggy or anything." Days later, once she had gotten over the shock, Overton decided to warn her neighbors by putting up a handwritten sign on her chain-link fence. "I wanted the neighbors to know. Besides, I didn't know how many other people might also have had their outgoing mail stolen." Fighting back against mail theft
Overton was right to warn her neighbors — the criminals may occasionally be clean-cut, but the consequences of this crime are brutal. The good news is that mail theft and related crimes are being reported to authorities more often — and are being targeted aggressively by federal law enforcement agencies.One of the lead agencies in the fight against identity theft has been the United States Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement branch of the U.S. Postal Service. The USPIS is empowered by federal laws and regulations to investigate and enforce more than 200 federal statutes related to crimes against the U.S. Mail, the Postal Service, and its employees. U.S. Postal Inspectors investigate any crime in which the U.S. Mail is used to further a scheme, whether it originated in the mail, by telephone or on the Internet.Because so much of the criminal activity related to identity theft involves the U.S. Mail, U.S. Postal Inspectors have long been on the front lines of the battle against identity thieves. Mail may be stolen to obtain the information needed to apply for checks or credit cards, or to complete fraudulent applications for new cards. Financial institutions typically send checks and credit cards via the U.S. Mail — making those items a succulent target for mail thieves, who can use anonymous addresses at mail drops (officially referred to as "commercial mail receiving agencies," or CMRAs) to collect the proceeds of their crimes.Last year, the USPIS made 5,858 mail theft arrests. One especially dramatic operation in June 2002 had federal postal inspectors fanned out across five states in a crackdown involving the USPIS, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Secret Service, several police departments, and identity theft task forces from several states. The operation netted more than 100 arrests in California alone. The first quarter of fiscal year 2004 (from 1 October to 31 December 2003) saw 1,522 mail theft and identity theft arrests by the USPIS nationally; 124 of those occurred in the territory of the San Francisco office, which includes the San Francisco Bay area, Silicon Valley, Sacramento, Stockton, and Fresno.According to Paul FX Lowery, an inspector with the San Francisco office of the USPIS, mail theft is skyrocketing throughout the Western states. Some steal mail to fuel their drug addictions; others buy cars and wide-screen televisions. Increasingly, organized crime rings also view mail fraud as an easy entry into big-time identity theft. "It's the most opportunistic crime in the United States," says Lowery. "It's a bottomless cookie jar for these mail thieves."Everyone is a target
Northern California U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan has no trouble identifying with victims of mail theft. Ryan and his wife were targeted last summer by a ring that made off with his Social Security number and his bank access code, even managing to write and cash several checks before he discovered the theft. They have yet to restore their financial information to the state it was in before the whole mess came down, says Ryan. "It's not fun," he adds.The ring that targeted him has yet to be caught. But Ryan can point to one success story: the case against Shawn Webb Fitzgerald in San Francisco. The 26 year-old Fitzgerald — who admitted to stealing bank numbers, credit card information, and brokerage statements, and creating files on his victims as far back to December 2001 — was charged with stealing some 7,000 pieces of mail and possessing a counterfeit mailbox key. Last May, Fitzgerald was sentenced to 105 months in prison.Postal Inspector Robert Carlson, of the San Francisco division of the United States Postal Inspection Service, deals with "external crimes mail theft" — mail stolen from external sources and used to commit identity theft and other fraud-related crimes. Once a perpetrator has been caught, says Carlson, the crime is relatively simple to prove, and conviction rates are high. And unlike some fraud-related crimes, this is an area where "current laws are pretty inclusive." Perpetrators are most commonly charged with possession of stolen mail under U.S. Code 1708, a crime that can land them in federal prison for up to five years.Because the crimes investigated by Carlson and his colleagues are violations of federal law, prosecutions are handled by the U.S. Attorney's office. But Carlson emphasizes that postal investigators work closely with local police departments as well. "For instance, we rely heavily on the local police to notify us if they find stolen mail in the course of an arrest," he points out.An organized crime
Many cases of mail theft involve no ringleader and no conspiracy, Postal Inspector Paul FX Lowery points out. But the crimes can be elaborate, with teams compiling detailed dossiers on victims based on information gleaned from mail swiped from mailboxes or pulled from the garbage. "Much mail theft occurs in volume attacks on neighborhood mailboxes or mailboxes in apartment complexes," says Lowery. "The big boxes are targeted because of the large number of letters, bills, or solicitations available." In one case in San Francisco involving old-style mailboxes, a man was caught on security video prying open the boxes at an apartment complex and rummaging through them — then smiling as he passed a resident in the lobby."We're seeing more organized groups committing crimes related to identity theft — for instance, with ringleaders producing counterfeit checks, distributing them on the street, and recruiting people to cash them," concurs Postal Inspector Robert Carlson. "We're also seeing an increase in thefts from postal trucks and from apartment panel mailboxes, as well as from the cluster boxes that are commonly found in new developments."These cluster boxes (known in the USPIS lexicon as "neighborhood delivery collection box units," or NDCBUs) typically also have a slot for outgoing mail — which Carlson does not recommend using. Likewise, Carlson notes that putting the red flag up on your mailbox is like waving a cape in front of a bull — a terrific way to draw the attention of a mail thief to the outbound check that's often waiting inside. If you're placing mail to be delivered into the mailstream, says Carlson, the USPIS recommends either handing it to your mail carrier, putting it directly into a USPS "blue box," or carrying it personally to a U.S. Post Office branch.Defending your mail
When you think of the Pacific Northwest, with its idyllic forests and bugeoning high-tech industry, mail theft is not the first thing that leaps to mind. But as it turns out, there is a connection. Before getting into the secure mailbox business, Rod Olsen of Mail Systems NW spent 16 years as a sawmill engineer — an unforgiving line of work where design concepts are tested in the most brutal possible terms and the margin of error is uncomfortably close to zero.As a result of this trial by fire, when Olsen began working on a prototype for a secure mailbox, his skills were up to the challenge. Then, a little more than six years ago, a Visa bill was stolen from Olsen's own mailbox by an identity thief who went on a $500 spending spree before being caught. Realizing just how much worse the damage could have been, Olsen decided then and there to get his mailboxes out in the marketplace where they might save others from having to go through the same ordeal."If I'm going to do this," Olsen said to himself, "I'm going to do it right." So, having devised and built mailbox designs that met both his own high standards and the secure mailbox specifications of the United States Postal Service, Olsen submitted his work to the rigorous USPS approval process. Several months later, he received his reward — the right to use the words "approved by the postmaster general."Steve Christenson, CEO of Identity Theft 911, chose Olsen's mailboxes to complement his company's other identity theft defense products only after a long and arduous search. For one thing, Christenson's company partners with some of the biggest names in the fraud protection area, from insurance powerhouse AIG to credit industry leaders like TransUnion and Truelink. For another, as a member of the fraud protection community himself, he understands all too well the damage that mail theft can lead to and was determined to find a real solution, not just a cosmetic one. "We were determined to offer the toughest and best designed locking mailbox on the market — and to make it available at a price that people could actually afford. Fortunately, Rod Olsen shares our goals. We spent months researching this, but it was worth it. We found exactly what we were looking for."The U.S. Postal Service is undertaking its own prevention efforts — including modified locks, security locking bars, and new high-security boxes for use in high-risk areas. The agency also has mailed prevention-tip postcards to residents in Zip codes that have been previously struck and in other high-risk areas in California and elsewhere in the Southwest. The postcards urge residents to watch for suspicious activity, record license plate numbers and descriptions of suspicious vehicles, report thefts as soon as possible, and avoid leaving mail in a box overnight.Red flags and other danger signs....
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Identity Theft 911
Identity Theft 911
Identity Theft 911 provides one-on-one counseling, strategies, and resources to targets of identity theft. Combining an intense one-to-one focus with a comprehensive nationwide resource network, the company specializes in helping individual and enterprise clients resolve the financial, legal, and emotional fallout from identity theft and related crimes.

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