SANTA ANA — Thieves have smashed machines at five Orange County post offices in the past six weeks, prompting the Postal Service to close 38 all-night post offices last weekend.
"It appears to be some sort of gang, or at least an organized group," said Jim Taylor, the Postal Service director of field operations in Orange County. "They seem to go after offices nearest the freeways. Of course, that's where most of our offices are located."
Taylor said the thieves destroy the vending machines and take the cash and stamps. Although Taylor could not estimate the loss, he said each machine costs $4,000 to $5,000.
County Postmaster Hector Godinez said the vandalism is unprecedented in the county. "It's has gotten to the point where vandalism seems to be the byword," Godinez said. "These people are breaking up the machines and taking whatever funds and stamps are inside them. We have been hit with a rash of losses."
The thieves struck county offices in Anaheim, El Toro, Garden Grove, Huntington Beach and Tustin, Taylor said. As a result, all but two of the county's 40 all-night post offices were closed Saturday and Sunday.
"We hate to ever close an office, because our customers are used to 24-hour service," Taylor said. "But we made the decision to protect our machines as well as our customers. You never know if someone would be in the office when the thieves arrived."
But authorities said Tuesday that all county post offices would remain open next weekend and that security measures had been taken to protect them.
Postal Inspector Don Obritsch said it is a problem that pops up occasionally throughout the country.
"These thieves are generally not professionals, more like a small-time operator working alone or with someone else as a lookout," Obritsch said. "They generally get anything from several dollars to several hundred dollars."
Because the machines are the property of the federal government, anyone caught vandalizing or burglarizing them could be convicted of a felony, Obritsch said.
"We do aggressively investigate these cases," Obritsch said. "We aren't just satisfied to write off the losses."