Is Someone Tampering with Your Mail?
Earlier this year, California authorities arrested more than 80 people connected to a long-established mail theft and check fraud ring that bilked hundreds of Los Angeles families.[*] The ringleaders of the alleged scheme are reported members of two local street gangs.
Their brazen mail theft operation stole nearly $5 million from victims across the state.
Other mail-related crimes like post office burglaries and mail carrier robberies have also surged in recent years and become frequent headlines in the news.
These crimes don’t happen by chance. They are often meticulous schemes involving dozens of professional criminals. You could mail yourself a GPS to try and apprehend these thieves, but then what? Your suspected neighborhood offenders might turn out to be a sophisticated criminal syndicate.
Mail theft is mounting because it pays off. Career criminals have learned that they can exploit the U.S. Postal Service system and the innocent people who rely upon it. If you believe someone is tampering with your mail, you may be the victim of a similar scheme.
What Is Mail Theft?
Any time someone illegally intercepts mail not intended for them, they are committing mail theft. Mail can get separated from its intended destination at any point in the postal delivery chain — from the moment a letter or package goes out, to the day it’s due for delivery.
Some of the most common types of mail theft include:
Post office burglaries
- Post offices can take in significant amounts of cash, making them lucrative targets for burglars. If burglars notice valuable packages lying in the office during a heist, they may grab them on their way out.
- Some variants of post office burglary don’t involve a heist at all. The U.S. Postal Service entrusts its employees with the security of peoples’ mail. Sometimes, disgruntled employees violate that trust and help themselves to valuable checks, documents, and packages. This behavior can go on for months or years before the perpetrators are caught.
Curbside post office box vandalization
- Collection boxes are owned and maintained by the U.S. Postal Service. There are many types of collection boxes, but the blue curbside courtesy boxes are the most common.
- These mailboxes require a universal “arrow key” to open them. The local post office branch keeps track of those keys, but it’s possible for postal keys to end up in the wrong hands.
- Packages that sit on your doorstep are easy targets for mail thieves. As e-commerce continues to grow, porch piracy is becoming an alarmingly common trend. Several U.S. states already treat porch piracy as a felony offense.
Mail carrier robberies
- Mail carrier robberies were a fixture in the Old West, and they still happen today. Armed robbers may attack postal service employees at any point on their route.
- Robbers often demand collection box arrow keys from carriers. Arrow keys can sometimes open any mailbox within a city and not just those in one zip code. A Maryland carrier was robbed at gunpoint as mail thieves tried to wrest one such arrow key from him.[*]
Why Do Thieves Want Your Mail?
Mail theft isn’t always about the value of the package itself. Criminals are often looking for opportunities to orchestrate larger financial crimes.
To do this, they first need to steal your identity using a combination of personally identifiable information (PII) and actual physical documents — all readily available in your mailbox.
Once bad actors can reliably convince financial authorities that they are you, there is virtually no limit to the damage they can do. They may steal from your bank account directly, apply for credit in your name, or frame you as the perpetrator for crimes that they commit.
Some of the fraudulent schemes that mail fraud victims may be exposed to include:
- Employment fraud targets people who are looking for a new job. It may begin with an invitation to interview for a prestigious-sounding company.
- Ultimately, the scammer requires up-front payment or attempts to sell a pyramid scheme. This ends up costing the job seeker valuable time and money.
📚 Related: How To Identify Job Scams: Watch Out for These Red Flags →
- Scammers may use illegally obtained mail to change the address you have on file with the post office. This allows them to divert all of your mail to an address of their choosing.
- At that point, they are free to solicit bank statements and renew your ID cards without interference. You may not even know about these developments until it’s too late.
Tax refund fraud
- There are many different types of tax refund scams, but they usually revolve around scammers impersonating tax authorities. They may collect tax payments from you by posing as IRS agents, or file tax refund claims in your name and collect from the government.
- Tax documents contain a wealth of sensitive personal data. Criminals may target these documents solely to learn your Social Security number (SSN). With your SSN, they can open new bank accounts, claim your government benefits, and even secure employment.
- Brushing scams became commonplace in 2020, when millions of people started receiving unexpected Amazon packages containing products they never ordered.
- This type of scam centers around delivery reviews, which e-commerce companies rely on to earn ratings on platforms like Amazon.
- Receiving free packages is a nice surprise, but it’s also cause for concern. It means someone found your address online and is impersonating you.
- Brushing scams drive business for unscrupulous e-commerce retailers. There is no way to know what other sensitive information of yours they might have, or how they might wish to use it later.
How To Catch Someone Stealing Your Mail By Using Informed Delivery
The U.S. Postal Service is well aware of the dangers of mail theft and fraud. One of the solutions it promotes is called Informed Delivery. This is a digital service that shows users a preview of the mail they are due to receive a few days before delivery.
With Informed Delivery, you can access a digital record that provides images of every letter-size mailpiece due to arrive at your home. You can also use it to track packages and open up support tickets for packages that do not arrive. If you miss a delivery, you can schedule redeliveries directly through the app.
The service is free. Anyone with a mobile phone can go through the process of verifying their identity, downloading the Informed Delivery app, and checking their mail delivery.
How does it work?
The U.S. postal service automatically takes greyscale photos of letter-sized envelopes as it processes them. This is part of their automated mail control system that ensures millions of letters get to their destination every day. Informed Delivery uses those images to show mail recipients what to expect when they open their mailbox.
The sign-up process is easy. Simply create your account on USPS.com, verify your identity and address, and download the app to your smartphone. You’ll have to provide your phone number. Informed Delivery notifications are also available for tablets and computers.
If you can’t verify your identity online, you may be able to do it at your local post office. Most urban zip codes feature post offices equipped to conduct in-person proofing for this purpose.
Although Informed Delivery is a valuable service, it does have its drawbacks. For example, it only provides photos for letter-sized envelopes processed through the postal service’s automated equipment. That means that you won’t see packages or larger envelopes in the system. It also isn’t available for business customers — only residential USPS users can sign up.
Are There Other Services Like Informed Delivery?
Amazon, UPS, and FedEx provide services similar to Informed Delivery. They offer a combination of free delivery verification and premium paid services to their customers.
- Amazon Photo on Delivery shows when and where packages were delivered. For high-value items, Amazon may send a one-time password to your email address and require you to exchange it for your package.
- UPS My Choice provides delivery alerts and package visibility as part of its free Basic service. They will also leave packages with a neighbor for free. If you want UPS to deliver packages on another day, or to a different address, you will have to pay a fee or upgrade to a paid Premium package.
- FedEx Delivery Manager offers picture proof of delivery as part of its free service. You can even sign for packages digitally using a QR code for free. Like UPS, rerouting a delivery is a paid service.
Generic solutions like 17Track provide tracking number data for packages sent from overseas carriers. However, these packages typically end up traveling through the regular postal system anyway. If you have already signed up for Informed Delivery, you should receive a notification before these packages arrive.
It’s worth mentioning that most of these services work strictly with parcels that people intentionally order.
It’s rare for people to receive unsolicited FedEx packages or Amazon products. Banks, institutions, and government agencies typically use USPS to send mail — so it’s worth signing up for Informed Delivery to help track your daily mail.
How To Protect Against Mail and Package Theft
There are several things you can do to protect yourself and your family against the threat of mail theft. Take the following actions to better secure your mail against scam artists, porch pirates, and criminals:
1. Sign up for USPS Electronic Signature Online®
Users who have signed up for Informed Delivery can enable an additional add-on called USPS Electronic Signature Online. This service allows customers to sign electronically for Priority Mail Express and Signature Confirmation deliveries.
This service makes it easy to prove your identity to post office personnel — making it that much harder for criminals to access your mail. It also gives postal workers a better chance to successfully deliver packages on the first attempt.
2. Don’t let mail pile up when you’re out of town
Scam artists and opportunistic criminals take notice when mail starts piling up outside your home. It sends a clear message that nobody is home. Leaving mail unattended even for a single night increases the risk of both mail fraud and outright burglary.
Your local post office will hold your mail for up to 30 days. If you’re out of town for over 30 days, it’s better to sign up for a forwarding service to reroute mail to your temporary address.
You can make these requests up to 30 days before your departure, or as late as the day before you leave. The post office accepts hold requests online, in person, and by phone.
3. Make sure carriers have an accurate address on file
One of the easiest ways to lose mail is by accidentally having it sent to the wrong address. If mail carriers do not have the right information on file, there is a good chance your mail will end up in someone else’s box. That makes the risk of mail fraud much higher.
If you have recently moved to a new address, make sure to complete a change-of-address form and submit it to USPS. You should repeat the same process for banks and credit card companies as well.
4. Reduce the amount of mail you receive
Scam artists can extract a surprising amount of information about victims from junk mail. Marketing materials and credit report promotions can all contribute to a wide range of scams. Add utility bills and bank statements, and you have a recipe for identity theft.
If you don’t already pay your bills online, consider switching to paperless billing and online statements.
Almost all utility providers and financial institutions offer digital solutions that can reduce the amount of mail you receive. This lowers the amount of sensitive data sent to you through the mail system.
5. Secure incoming mail with a lock
Consider replacing your residential mailbox with a lock-secured box. The box only needs to have a small opening for postal workers to drop mail through. You do not have to share the key with mail carriers.
You may also have mail delivered to a PO box, or ask the local post office to hold your mail for pickup. If you don’t want to use a lock and key, scheduling regular mail pickups at the post office is an effective way to shepherd your mail.
6. Provide deliverers with detailed instructions
One quick way to lock down mail security is by asking deliverers to leave packages out of sight. A package tucked away in a shaded or gated area is less enticing than one sitting in plain sight on your front porch.
If you have enough space outside your home, consider dedicating part of it to receiving mail and package deliveries. It can be something as simple as a hidden spot behind a wall of shrubbery. When you order items online, ask deliverers to place the item in the designated area.
7. Install a security camera
If porch piracy is a serious problem in your neighborhood, security camera footage can help authorities track down the perpetrators. Security cameras make an effective deterrent against burglaries and other crimes as well.
Keep in mind that cameras can’t save footage indefinitely. You’ll have to think about the duration of footage you want to save before deleting it.
8. Collect incoming packages in person
Collecting packages in person is by far the best way to secure them against theft. There is no replacement for personally collecting a package, inspecting it, and knowing that it has arrived safely.
Many people choose to have packages shipped to their workplace, making it more likely that the package arrives during office hours. And even for after-hour deliveries, a commercial mailroom is more secure than an unprotected front porch.
9. Talk to your neighbors
Most delivery people will happily leave packages with neighbors when the intended recipient isn’t at home. If you sign up for an electronic signature service, you can even sign for packages digitally when your neighbors receive them.
This assumes you have reliable neighbors who are home when you are not — which isn’t always the case. However, reaching out to your neighbors still has its benefits. Pay attention to neighbors who complain about missing mail — the whole neighborhood may have a mail theft problem.
10. Report missing mail and suspicious activity
If you’re expecting mail that hasn’t arrived within one week of its expected delivery date, you can open a claim to find missing mail with USPS. There are also different ways to report mail theft depending on whether you have evidence of the theft.
Follow These Steps To Report Mail Theft
When packages go missing, it doesn’t always indicate mail theft. USPS delivers more than 160 million pieces of mail every day[*] — some of it is bound to get lost or misdirected along the way.
Before submitting a report, ask yourself why you believe mail theft has occurred. Be prepared to present evidence that your mail was stolen, as opposed to having simply been lost.
If you don’t have evidence to suggest theft or fraud has occurred
If there’s a reasonable chance your mail is merely missing, you can file a claim with USPS. You’ll have to do this during the appropriate filing period for your type of mail (usually after 15 days but before 60 days have passed) and present some documents that will help the post office conduct its investigation.
The post office also operates a hotline to field mail theft complaints. You can call the hotline at 1-800-222-1811 to receive tracking information for domestic and international shipments.
Your post office may ask for tracking numbers, evidence of insurance, and proof of value for the missing item or document. You can file this claim online and provide digital screenshots of the data they request, or file your claim through the mail and include the documents with your submission.
If you have evidence to suggest theft or fraud has occurred
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) carries out its own investigations into mail theft and fraud. As the law enforcement arm of the USPS, postal inspectors also have the authority to check crimes committed by postal service employees.
This federal agency operates an independent website where you can file a mail theft report. You will be asked to provide information about the fraud actors involved and the scheme they appear to be running. You can select from a broad range of categories — from advance payment fraud to medical quackery, credit card scams, and more.
If the authorities launch an investigation, you will probably be contacted for more information. You will likely be updated about the course of the investigation and its eventual conclusion when they catch the perpetrators responsible.
Keep in mind that building a legal case against mail fraud suspects can be a difficult and time-consuming process.
Should you file a police report?
Since the USPIS is a federal law enforcement agency, any report you file on the agency website is a police report. If you believe local police authorities should be involved, you can file a report with them as well. However, if you’re reporting mail fraud, they may simply transfer the case to USPIS anyway.
Mail Fraud and Theft Are Not Harmless Crimes
You can tell a great deal about someone by reading their mail. Criminals have adopted incredibly sophisticated techniques to defraud innocent people using mail fraud schemes. If you are missing mail that the post office claims to have delivered, you may be at risk for identity theft.
Mail fraud is a serious federal crime carrying a punishment of up to 20 years in federal prison as well as enormous penalties. If a bank or financial institution is involved, the punishment increases to 30 years with a fine of up to $1 million.
Mail theft is a felony-level federal offense. Perpetrators may receive up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. These two crimes are different, but they are often carried out alongside one another. If someone pilfers your mail and uses the information they find to defraud you, they’re guilty of both crimes.
Unfortunately, legal penalties don’t always deter crimes. Consider protecting yourself from mail-related identity theft with Aura.
Aura protects your financial accounts and data from identity thieves and provides up to $1,000,000 in insurance coverage for eligible losses associated with identity theft.