Sophisticated mail theft ring hits neighborhoods across Houston area

From identity theft to check laundering, the problem of mail theft is a worrying one. A month-long KPRC2 investigation uncovered a business where organized thieves are selling stolen checks and mailbox keys online for thousands of dollars. We look at each other like thieves do it, where it’s worst and why what is being done keeping communities safe.

Checks stolen, laundered and cashed

KPRC2 Investigates brought you victims who had checks stolen from mailboxes. The checks were then laundered, rewritten, made out to strangers, and cashed for thousands more. But we’ve learned what’s happening now is much bigger.

Ed Newhard wrote a donation check for a charity that was later stolen from a nearby mailbox. It was later laundered and redeemed for thousands of dollars. (Copyright 2021 by KPRC Click2Houston – All rights reserved.)

“It happens everywhere, but Texas, New York, California, Ohio and Florida are by far the worst,” he said Frank Albergo, President of the Postal Police Union.

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Frank Albergo is the President of the Postal Police Officer’s Association. Forget the one-off thefts where thieves go from box to box to steal mail. The mail thefts taking place now are volume attacks.

“Hundreds of casualties in a volume attack. This is a serious problem,” explains Albergo.

Postman robbed

A postman rings the doorbell for help after being robbed in East Houston. KPRC2 investigation uncovers growing problem of postman robberies and mail theft. (Copyright 2021 by KPRC Click2Houston – All rights reserved.)

Across the country, thieves are ambushing mail carriers at gunpoint. The “Ring Doorbell” video shows an East Houston postman urging homeowners to call the police seconds after he was robbed on his route. Thieves want the mail, but they also want the arrow keys.

“One arrow key can provide access to all mail in a zip code,” Albergo said.

An arrow key can open hundreds of mailboxes and blue mailboxes.

Mail keys or “arrow keys” for sale on the Internet. Thieves use these keys to steal mail from mailboxes. Our KPRC2 investigation uncovered the growing problem of mail carrier robberies and mail theft in the Houston area and across the country. (Copyright 2021 by KPRC Click2Houston – All rights reserved.)

It’s not just mail being stolen

Just last week, lawmakers arrested two people in a traffic delay on the Sam Houston Tollway on the Eastside. Cops say they found cocaine, marijuana, 120 pieces of mail and a United States Postal Service (USPS) master key. Albergo said if couriers are robbed of the keys, the postal service knows which zip code is at risk, but they don’t share that information with the people who live there.

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“Not only do they not notify people, they downplay the problem,” he said.

We learned that crooks are selling the keys online for up to a thousand dollars. They also buy and sell checks from stolen mail on messaging apps like Telegram and What’s App.

Stolen checks found for sale online. (Copyright 2021 by KPRC Click2Houston – All rights reserved.)

We found an image online showing five checks for sale. Four of them were dropped in a West Houston mailbox a few days earlier. We called the owners to tell them their checks and bank accounts had been disclosed.

Months-long KPRC2 investigation uncovers sophisticated mail stealing scheme. We came across checks for sale online and contacted the check holders. (Copyright 2021 by KPRC Click2Houston – All rights reserved.)

Jeremy Lord rushed to his bank to cancel the check he had written to his insurance company.

“I was panicking,” Lord said. “The bank advised me to close the account immediately and to continue to be very careful about writing checks in the future.”

Increase in complaints of mail theft and robberies

The US Postal Inspection Service admits it is seeing an increase in complaints of mail theft and raids on US Postal Service workers that began during the pandemic. That was at the same time that the agency banked its entire postal police force with this August 2020 recommendation to limit its jurisdiction to protecting postal service buildings.

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“And since then, mail theft has exploded. I mean, obviously there’s a correlation,” Albergo said.

Months-long KPRC2 investigation uncovers sophisticated mail stealing scheme. (Copyright 2021 by KPRC Click2Houston – All rights reserved.)

“I’m like an HPD officer, but I’m federal,” Landy Leighton said.

Landy Leighton is a member of the Postal Police Association. He wears a badge, carries a gun and is handcuffed and has been serving in Houston since 2010. But he says he feels useless as he sits on the sidelines and watches the rise in mail theft.

After 50 years of protecting mail carriers in high-risk areas and deterring crimes committed in marked vehicles, the US Postal Police are no longer authorized to protect mail unless the crime occurs at a post office or distribution center. So unless we’re out there to see it, deter it, prevent it, obviously you’re going to get what we have now, which is a spike in all of this.

Mail theft by zip code

No one from the mail service spoke to us on camera, but when we asked about all the reported cases of mail theft in the greater Houston area, they gave us some information. In 2021, the Post Office received more than 8,400 complaints about mail theft.

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Areas with the highest number of mail theft complaints in 2021.

Latest reports are from zip codes in the Katy/Cinco Ranch area. Other specific high symptom-free areas include Cypress – primarily south of 290 and both sides of 99, Katy – north of I-10, west of Hwy 99. But no matter where you live, do the best you can to take care of yourself and Protecting your money is Never send a check in the mail.

“It’s similar to saying, ‘Don’t eat hamburgers’ at McDonald’s, I mean, that’s literally what happens,” Albergo said. “We’re literally telling people, ‘Don’t ship anything in a blue collection box.’ The Post brand was destroyed. And they allow it. They have the police, they’re called the Postal Police. You should use it.”

There is a Act that Congress could pass restore the jurisdiction of the postal police. And before that, a labor arbitration is scheduled for next month, where that issue will also be addressed. We stay on the ball for you.

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What to do if you suspect that you have been the victim of mail theft?

If you suspect that you have been the victim of mail theft, there is a list of places to report it.

  • Contact USPS. The USPS says losses are recorded by the Postal Inspection Service to identify problem areas and help inspectors track thieves. Report suspected lost mail to Postal Inspectors by calling 877-876-2455 or at www.uspis.gov.
  • Notify law enforcement. You should also contact your city’s police department and file a police report, and you can also contact the prosecutor’s office.

  • Alert financial institutions. Depending on what you think was stolen, you should notify your bank and credit reports of the theft.

Copyright 2022 by KPRC Click2Houston – All rights reserved.

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