After returning from a post-Thanksgiving visit with family out of state, one Upper West Side resident checked her bank account, only to find an expensive discrepancy. On Thursday, Dec. 15, she realized $7,000 — instead of the $75 she had originally sent as a charitable donation, in the form of a check — had been deducted. The check had been stolen and cashed by someone she didn’t know.
“It’s shocking, because you try to be careful with your money and then all of a sudden, out of the blue, it’s gone,” said the woman, who told her story on the condition of anonymity.
The Upper West Sider mailed her check dated Nov. 23, 2022 via a sidewalk USPS collection box on a stretch of West End Avenue between West 72nd and West 76th Streets. She’d attempted to avoid foul play by sending a check, rather than doling out her credit card number over the phone or online — but it backfired. “Somebody is making a good deal of money,” she said. It’s a crime that’s been unfolding across Manhattan with increasing frequency over the past few months, according to U.S. Postal Inspector Glen McKechnie.
Criminals On A Roll
Only a few days earlier, on Monday, Nov. 21, one West End Avenue resident mailed two checks, in the amounts of $15,000 and $1,500, on behalf of his company, Fantasy Interactive, Inc., according to police briefings. Later, his bank informed him that his checks had been intercepted by not one, but two “unknown suspects” who made themselves out as the payees.
Incidents of mail thievery and check washing have been “rampant” citywide, including on the Upper East Side, according to Council Member Julie Menin. “This is an enormous problem and it’s particularly problematic for seniors,” she said, explaining that the issue was hurting New Yorkers even back when she served as commissioner of the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, formerly the Department of Consumer Affairs.
In Midtown, near the intersection of East 38th Street and Madison Avenue, a man was arrested early in the morning on Wednesday, Jan. 18 for stealing mail, according to McKechnie. He said the man was found with mail from collection boxes at 401 Broadway and at the intersections of West 92nd Street and West 87th Street with West End Avenue.
McKechnie noted that despite rising complaints, incidents of theft are still only happening “here and there.” But criminals seem to be working with new tools.
Caught In A Sticky Situation
On the Upper West Side, the unlucky resident whose check was intercepted at the end of the year had previously noticed a sticky residue coating some collection boxes — which left her wondering if it could be linked with mail theft. A recent Fox 5 New York segment identified the “sticky substance” as part of a technique used by criminals to make stealing mail easier, showing video footage of a man interfering with a USPS box on a New York sidewalk.
To avoid becoming a victim of mailbox fishing, the USPS suggests an easy fix: drop off your mail in advance of the last collection time listed on sidewalk boxes — and not afterward, when mail will sit unattended overnight, McKechnie said. “These criminals, they don’t go at six, seven o’clock at night to steal,” he said. “They’ll go two, three, four o’clock in the morning, when the streets are deserted and it’s dark.” The NYPD advises people to bring mail containing sensitive or valuable information to a Post Office and write checks using pens with permanent ink.
Menin’s office and the 19th Precinct are distributing pens and the Council member is encouraging people to utilize online banking, to negate any need to send physical checks via mail. To teach older New Yorkers to use crucial online platforms, the City Council works with a group called Older Adults Technology Services (OATS). “If you switch to online banking, this then becomes a moot issue,” Menin said.
Though prevention is the best solution, according to McKechnie, the USPS often works with the NYPD to catch criminals. When investigating a case of mail theft, he explained, postal inspectors seek subpoenas to serve the banks where altered checks are deposited and collect account holder information plus relevant ATM video footage — a process that can take 90 days. McKechnie recommends that people make their complaints directly to the USPS in addition to the NYPD. (To report a case of mail theft, you can call the Postal Inspection Service at 1-877-876-2455.)
In recent years, collection boxes that previously had doors people could pull open were upgraded with new “high security” features, including the thin slots with rings inside that mail is now pushed through.
After the Upper West Side woman’s run in with mail theft, her bank took about a week to reimburse her, she said. Now, she and her husband are more cautious — and make more regular trips to the Post Office. “We definitely think twice about where we’re putting our mail.”
“It’s shocking, because you try to be careful with your money and then all of a sudden, out of the blue, it’s gone.” A woman on the UWS whose $75 written to a charity was altered to give $7,000 to a criminal who stole the check.