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Postal Officials Are Trying to Lick Mail Thefts : Crime: Missing any letters? Postal vehicle break-ins and carrier robberies are plaguing several Southeast cities. Such steps as providing cellular phones to carriers are being considered.


The check is in the mail--or is it?

Some residents of Huntington Park and Walnut Park have been left wondering after a series of postal vehicle break-ins and robberies of postal service employees.

Blocks of residents' mail have been stolen more than 20 times this year, said Mike Gomez, vice president of the Walnut Park Community Assn.

But that's just a fraction of postal thefts in the Los Angeles division, which stretches from San Luis Obispo to the outskirts of San Diego, said Pamela Prince, media liaison for the Postal Inspection Service.

Since October, thieves have broken into 52 vehicles and robbed about a dozen carriers each month. And during its last fiscal year, from October, 1992, to September, 1993, the U.S. Postal Service reported 524 vehicle break-ins and 91 employees robbed--some at gunpoint, one even with a meat cleaver--in the division.

"Those responsible are mainly well-organized rings that operate throughout the state," Prince said. The Los Angeles division consistently has the highest number of vehicle break-ins and robberies, she said.

The last local incidents took place July 1 and 5, when about 850 residences in Huntington Park and Walnut Park were robbed of their mail. In those thefts, new postal service vehicles were pried open and bags of mail stolen.

"The first and third of each month are when most of these incidents take place, since those are targeted check-delivery days," said Prince, referring to the days many federal assistance checks are delivered. Mail thieves then try to cash the stolen checks at banks, grocery and liquor stores and check-cashing services, a task made easier by Los Angeles' burgeoning counterfeit identification industry.

"Quite frankly, it's not that difficult to get a fake ID for about $50 in L.A.," said Detective James Lally of the County Sheriff's Department. "If you have a $500 stolen check in your hand, that's a pretty small investment. So what you get is one scam working off another."

Police in Huntington Park recently cracked down on that city's growing trade in illegal identification documents. Twenty-nine arrests were made in the two-week stakeout. Materials recovered in a June 9 raid included a laminating machine, photo equipment and fraudulent California driver's licenses and resident alien, Social Security and state identification cards.

"We now have verification programs to check people with phony IDs and checks that aren't theirs," said Roberto Aguilar, manager of Western Union in Huntington Park. "But the problem is getting a lot worse now, you can tell."

Thieves are known to travel as far as Phoenix to cash stolen checks. Wherever the checks are cashed, U.S. Postal Service inspectors say the operations are sophisticated and well-organized.

Prince also said that those who ultimately pay for this crime are the businesses that are fooled into cashing the checks and those whose checks are stolen. Businesses that cash stolen checks lose the amount written on each check, since banks don't reimburse them. For some businesses, this loss is compounded by a bad credit rating. "Ultimately, the person who cashes the stolen check is financially responsible," Prince said.

But the authorities' efforts haven't satisfied everyone.

"It's utterly ridiculous for the federal government not to respond in a positive and proactive manner," said Gomez, criticizing the federal response to the robberies. "You might as well send a troop of Boy Scouts to Iraq."

Gomez and other Walnut Park residents have made repeated appeals to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the office of Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), which have both taken up investigations.

According to Yolanda Chavez, Roybal-Allard's chief of staff, the easiest way to deter check thefts is for residents to have their checks deposited directly into their bank accounts. Chavez said her office plans to warn residents with a letter, informing them of the risks associated with routine mail delivery.

The Postal Service is also looking into other solutions, such as providing mail carriers with beepers and cellular phones. This would allow carriers to immediately inform police and postal inspectors of any situation they deem unsafe.

The Postal Inspection Service also hopes to implement locally a Customer Alert Program, in which customers who are home during the day can be on the lookout for postal crimes. Prince said that program holds promise: San Jose started the program in January and has had a 100% success rate in deterring break-ins.

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