It used to be that crooks robbed banks because, as bandit Willie Sutton once said, that's where the money was.
Now the thieves are going after your mailbox. Because these days, that's where they're finding the easy loot.
Thanks in part to an unsuspecting American populace, the U.S. mail has become one of the richest veins for crooks to mine. And federal authorities are scrambling to keep up, especially in Los Angeles, where a wide variety of audacious criminals have made mail theft a full-time occupation.
"It is probably the No. 1 type of white-collar crime in the country today," said Postal Inspector Robert Bethel, chief spokesman for the criminal investigative arm of the U.S. Postal Service in Washington, D.C.
"You can be victimized and not know you're being victimized for many months," Bethel said. "Then the hammer falls. And it can take years to clear things up."
Last week, the pervasiveness of mail theft was underscored once again when 11 Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department employees were accused of conspiring with postal workers to use credit cards stolen from the mail in a wide-ranging scam.
But they're far from alone. Everyone's getting in on the scam, from speed freaks driving around at 4 in the morning, fishing letters out of personal mailboxes, to organized professionals who go for volume, stealing loads of mail on days when government assistance checks and bills are circulating. Then there are the inside jobs by postal workers themselves.
They're looking for checks, credit cards, bank account numbers and other financial information used to steal people's identities.
One reason mail theft is so alarming, authorities say, is that it takes only one stolen item--an outgoing bill, an incoming checking account statement--to give a thief the information he needs to be off and spending.
Stealing mail is also becoming a preferred crime because criminals don't have to worry about police chases, bank cameras or victims who may put up a fight.
"Now that people have figured out that you can do it, it's spreading like crazy," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Andrew Brown.
The spread of mail theft comes in part because the public gives little thought to their mail, authorities say.
"The American public generally is a very trusting group of people. And a lot of times people perceive bills--incoming and outgoing--as having no value," Bethel said. "But they are incredibly valuable."
Federal prosecutors, postal inspectors and others familiar with mail theft say they believe it has been increasing noticeably in recent years--even though the Postal Service reports that arrests have remained steady over the last five years, at about 4,000 annually.
In Los Angeles, federal prosecutors say they're swamped with mail theft cases, which make up at least one-third of the cases brought before the grand jury for indictments. Mail theft is a federal crime punishable by as much as five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
Some groups of armed assailants--especially street gangs in Los Angeles--have been shaking down mail carriers at gunpoint for the keys to centralized mail drops. Others go straight to the source, holding up post offices, mail sorting facilities and registered-mail delivery trucks packed with mail-order valuables.
Account Numbers Lead to Phony Checks
Although federal authorities say it is virtually impossible to gauge the extent of mail theft, they believe there is an "exploding" new type of postal crime. Thieves are pilfering checking account numbers, which are used to print up phony checks--thanks to software programs available in any office supply store.
They are also increasingly engaged in "identity takeovers," in which they create fake identities and bank accounts and use them to finance extravagant lifestyles.
Mail theft has been around as long as the mail itself. It's one reason the job of postal inspector was created in the first place, in 1737. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were stealing the U.S. mail when the government sent a posse after them.
Today, the Postal Service's criminal investigators remain busy. Two of them, postal inspectors Shawn Tiller and Anthony Galetti, are "catching bad guys as fast as we can prosecute them, sometimes even faster," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Larry Cho, chief of the general crimes prosecution unit in Los Angeles.
"These guys are in here [before the grand jury] once a week, which shows how prolific the problem is," he said.
Federal authorities in Los Angeles and other major cities say they began seeing the increase in mail theft cases about eight years ago, around the same time crooks began "washing" checks in large numbers.
The bandits would use chemicals to obliterate everything written on the checks but the signatures, and replace the numbers with larger amounts made payable to themselves under assumed names.