Malibu residents victims of mail theft

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Identity theft and “check washing” can result from mail theft.

By Ashley King/Special to The Malibu Times

A rash of mail thefts have been reported in Malibu in the past two weeks, some taking place on the same day, on the same road. One person was also the victim of “check washing” after her mail was stolen.

On March 22, a Winding Way resident reported her mail missing when she went to her mailbox and saw there was no mail. She told Sheriff’s deputies she believed her mail was stolen because her residence has received mail on a daily basis for years.

On the same day, two more Winding Way residents reported that the locks on their mailboxes were pried open, although one did not believe their mail was stolen. The day before, another Malibu resident reported her mail stolen after a neighbor told her that someone in a van had pulled up to her mailbox and lingered for a few moments. The victim told Sheriff’s deputies that the mail was gone when she went to collect it. And, more recently, a Cuthbert Road resident said she realized her mail was stolen when she did not receive a letter she was expecting, and a Big Rock resident’s mail was stolen, and her checks “washed.”

Although the U.S. Postal Inspection Service is an agency responsible for investigating mail theft, the agency is not looking into the Malibu thefts at this time. However, the local Sheriff’s station is currently conducting an investigation, officials said. No one has been linked to the crimes. Malibu Postmaster Mary Jane Smith recently sent out letters informing residents of reported mail theft, and encouraged residents to report repeated incidents.

Since January, postal inspectors have made 543 arrests nationwide for postal crimes, including mail theft, mail fraud and robbery. Last year, postal inspectors made 10, 388 arrests.

Outgoing mail has been more of a problem with mail theft. According to the letter issued by the Post Office, thieves may be after Social Security checks, income tax refunds, public assistance checks, food stamps, credit cards or other valuables. Even the financial information on your bank statement, for example, could enable a thief to order blank checks on your checking account. A red flag of a mailbox is an open invitation to identity theft, postal inspectors said. As a result of mail theft, victims are reportedly spending from $30 to $2,000 on costs related to identity theft, according to Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and the California Public Interest Research Group.

A new trend in mail theft is a process known as “check washing.” Stolen checks can be washed with household cleaning products such as acetone or bleach, then rewritten by the thieves to themselves, often increasing the amount payable by hundreds of dollars.

One Big Rock resident said her mail was being stolen and checks had been washed. It wasn’t until she checked with the bank when checks weren’t going through, that she had found out amounts payable were being changed along with the payable-to name.

“It took an embarrassing phone call from my accountant saying he didn’t get his payment and a call to my bank before I realized my checks were being washed,” the Big Rock victim said. “It only takes a small intrusion into someone’s life to make you feel unsafe.”

The Big Rock resident said she recently changed her mailbox to a locking one to prevent further theft. “It is expensive to buy and install,” she said, “but I would say it is well worth it.”

Mailboxes with locks can be purchased at home improvement stores, many hardware stores and stores that specialize in mail security products. Prices range from around $15 to as high as $100 or more.

However, mail theft, said Postal Inspector/Public Relations person Mike McCarthy, is considered small when considering that approximately 145 million mailboxes are delivered to daily, and 650 million pieces of mail are being delivered.

The Postal Service recommends not leaving mail in mailboxes, especially overnight or over the weekend and when on vacation, to avoid theft.