Federal and local authorities are investigating a rash of postal thefts in Glendale in which batches of government checks are stolen and the rest of the letters discarded.
Five thefts from delivery vehicles have been reported by postal carriers since Friday--the first of the month when Social Security checks and other government payments are delivered to thousands of elderly, disabled and other recipients, U. S. Postal Inspector Donald Obritsch said.
Officials said that since the fall, the rise in mail thefts has been significant in the San Fernando Valley area, including Burbank, Van Nuys, Sherman Oaks, Tarzana and Woodland Hills. But they called the problem in Glendale particularly acute.
"Lately, we have been getting more reports of mail robberies from Glendale than anywhere else," said George Maloney, a Social Security specialist with the regional office in San Francisco, which handles California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii. "In Glendale, it's happening month after month."
Obritsch said the thefts are similar in pattern to an operation halted several years ago in which Latino gang members stole checks and cashed them in Mexico. "We're talking about a fairly deep ring-type of operation," he said. "These are professional criminals that do this for a living."
He said a task force of federal, local and Mexican authorities arrested and prosecuted or deported almost 100 Latino gang members--mostly illegal aliens--during a clampdown in the Los Angeles area in 1988 and 1989.
However, checks from the most recent thefts have generally been marketed in San Francisco or San Diego, Obritsch said.
Authorities do not know how many checks have been taken or how much money has been lost. However, victims can get new checks in about 10 days if they notify Social Security officials.
One of the batches of stolen mail was recovered in Glendale on Saturday by a resident who found about 100 unopened letters in her city-issued trash can. All the Social Security checks were missing from the recovered mail.
David S. Urquidez, station manager at the main Glendale Post Office, credited Anahit Oganesyan, 34, a recent emigre from Soviet Armenia, for finding the stolen mail. "Because of a concerned citizen, some of the people are getting back some of their mail," Urquidez said.
Oganesyan does not speak English, but Ashley Inglove, a relative with whom she lives, explained the find. She said the trash barrel had been left until Saturday in front of the family's home on East Mountain Street in an affluent neighborhood.
When Oganesyan brought the can back to the rear yard, she found "a long, gray postal service tray inside filled with mail, probably 100 pieces of mail," Inglove said. Postal officials "were at the house within 10 minutes" after the family notified them, Inglove added.
Urquidez said the thefts typically occur while mail vehicles are parked unattended in a neighborhood as the carrier makes the rounds on foot. Stolen checks and credit cards are processed through a complex, tiered underworld, investigators said.
Postal officials said security containers are being installed in older vehicles. New vehicles are designed so that the rear of the van is built like a strong box and is difficult to break into.
All of the thefts in Glendale in the last week involved older vehicles that do not yet have the security containers, Urquidez said.
Marion Larkins, district manager of Social Security in Glendale, said workers have repeatedly urged recipients to have their federal checks electronically deposited to their banking accounts without going through the mail. "We keep telling them, 'Please, go direct deposit.' "
The Glendale office handles monthly disability and retirement benefits for 25,000 people in Glendale, Highland Park, Glassell Park and Eagle Rock, Larkins said. Another 13,000 receive Supplemental Security Income checks.
"The potential loss right there is enormous," Larkins said. "Glendale has had so many mail robberies over the last year. It's happening every single month."
She said her office was flooded Monday with calls from anxious recipients who did not receive their checks because of the latest thefts. "When people are on fixed incomes, any kind of delay can affect them negatively," she said. "They are waiting to buy their food or pay their rent."
Obritsch urged residents to help fight the problem. "If a postal vehicle is parked on your street and the carrier is out making rounds, it behooves you to keep an eye out and report anything strange." He said the Postal Service offers up to a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.