Check thefts at blue drop boxes have victims, banks seeing red

A notice on the Cornwall Bridge USPS collection box warns patrons to avoid putting mail in the box after the last posted pick-up time.

Debra A. Aleksinas

Check thefts at blue drop boxes have victims, banks seeing red

CORNWALL — Jim Young didn’t think twice when, on the evening of Dec. 23, he dropped a letter containing a $3,884 check into the iconic blue collection box outside the Cornwall Bridge Post Office.

It was addressed to the Housatonic Valley Rug Shop Inc., located roughly 100 feet away. The check never made it that far.

Instead, a crafty crook, likely under the cloak of darkness, fished that letter, and potentially others, out of the Postal Service drop box. A week later the altered check was cashed in Jamaica, New York.

Young, who owns Sharon Auto Body, wrote a replacement check to cover the purloined one but he is now mired in red tape trying to get reimbursed from his bank, NBT, for his nearly $4,000 loss. He is angry. And he is not alone.

Check fraud is a hot topic these days on a Cornwall neighborhood discussion site.

And in nearby Warren, more than a dozen residents have been victimized by mail theft from home mailboxes and the blue USPS box in the town center, according to First Selectman Greg LaCava, who, last month, posted warnings to residents via the town’s website.

LaCava said he has also been making rounds to the senior center in town to alert seniors and has been conferring with the Connecticut State Police.

One victim, he noted, had deposited mail at the Cornwall Bridge mailbox. In another case, the dollar amount on a check was changed from $500 to $15,000.

“The more I talk about it, the more I hear of other people with the same problem,” Young noted. What angers him the most, he said, is that “the U.S. Post Office has known this has been going on for three months, and they have done zero about it.”

Craig Drozd, postmaster at the Cornwall Bridge Post Office, declined to comment except to confirm that the matter is being handled by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS).

Old boxes are being ‘phased out’

The recent spate of Litchfield County mail thefts is under investigation, said Danielle Schrage, a USPIS inspector and public information officer for Connecticut.

Her agency is the law enforcement and security arm of the United States Postal Service.

“I spoke with the investigators covering those complaints. They are aware and working very closely with the post offices to replace the standard blue collection boxes in those areas,” with newer, high-technology boxes, she reported Jan. 19.

“If there is a blue box with a pull-down handle, a lot of those are being phased out and replaced with newer ones with thinner slots to prevent fishing,” the Schrage noted. “It hasn’t happened yet but will be happening.”

In the meantime, she suggested that postal patrons bring their mail inside the Post Office, or hand it to a carrier on the street. If they must use the blue box, Schrage suggested making the deposit as close to daily pick-up times as possible.

“Don’t let your mail sit in there a minute longer than it needs to. Unfortunately, in this world, we have to give up a little convenience for security,” said the postal inspector. “We don’t live in 1950s Mayberry. We have to be a lot more savvy.”

Schrage advised victims of mail fraud to immediately contact the USPIS at www.uspis.gov/report and fill out a complaint online, or call 877-876-2455, so that the agency can track in real time when and where thefts are taking place and can gather information for criminal prosecution.

“I have been screaming from the rooftop, but a lot of people don’t know we exist as an agency,” said Schrage.

She warned that small, rural towns are easy targets for criminals.

“In some of the bedroom communities, people are a little more complacent. The criminals are not from Litchfield County, they’re coming in and looking for communities that are less savvy” about check fraud.

A sticky situation

While check fishing is an age-old crime, it has been surging since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, said postal officials.

The USPS defines check fishing as a line, often with a sticky end, typically rodent glue traps, lowered into a postal box to snag letters and fished back out.

Fraudsters ditch all but the checks, which are then “washed” by changing the payee names, and often the dollar amounts, by removing the ink using chemical agents.

However, in Young’s case, his check was not washed, but completely reprinted with the bank routing number, check number, dollar amount and signature onto a different background.

After about a week of waiting for the check to reach its destination, Young said he went to NBT to void the missing check, only to find out that the $3,884 check had cleared in his account.

Banks absorb customers’ losses

According to a recent report by the federal Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, check fraud at depository institutions more than tripled between 2018 and 2022, up 201.2% between those years.

While fishing for checks is a lucrative catch for criminals, it is a nightmare for banks, said Steven Cornell, president and CEO of National Iron Bank (NIB), which has a branch in the Cornwall Bridge section of Cornwall.

Cornell confirmed a “big uptick” in customers from Cornwall reporting check fraud.

“We resolve every one of them very quickly. We go back to all the banks and work with them to get the money back, and except for the big banks, most are very good about it.”

Cornell explained that the Cornwall Bridge branch manager has devoted countless hours helping customers close out breached accounts and opening new ones.

He said it is frustrating that the postal service is unable to secure mail at the expense of the banks:

“It takes a lot of time for us to do this, but there is nothing we can do but resolve it for our customers. They’re doing the right things by using the mail and paying their bills, and then this happens to them. It’s a terrible situation.”

Cornell said one way for customers to deter fraud is to switch from using checks to utilizing the bank’s secure electronic bill-pay system or debit cards. “Everybody who has moved to bill-pay is happy with it.”

Those who can’t part with checks are advised by the USPS to write in permanent ink, which can’t be erased as it penetrates the paper’s fibers.

Young said it could be months before he recoups his loss, but that’s not his main concern.

What he does worry about is that until the blue boxes are secure, his neighbors run the risk of scammers emptying their bank accounts.

Young said he has taken it upon himself to tape laminated warning signs to the Cornwall Bridge USPS collection box, but they are taken down as fast as he posts them.

“Meanwhile, people are putting checks in that box today. It’s that complacency that drives me crazy.”

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