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Mailboxes and Identity Theft

Most mailboxes come equipped with small red flags that when raised indicate that the owner of the mailbox has outgoing mail to be picked up by the mailman. They also can serve as an invitation to identity thieves to raid your mail. An old-fashioned, but still viable, form of stolen mail identity theft occurs when your mail, containing checks to creditors such as credit card companies or your mortgage payment, is grabbed by an identity thief. The thief performs a process known as “check washing” through which the amount of the check and the name of the payee is changed from the person or business to which you made out the check to the name of the identity thief. Common household cleaning products such as bleach can be used to “wash” the check and remove the name of the payee. The check is then rewritten payable to the identity thief in an amount of the thief’s choosing.

It is not just your outgoing mail that is fodder for identity thieves. Mail left in your mailbox by the mailman can include new credit cards, Social Security checks, income tax refunds, credit card applications, and credit card statements, as well as other documents that can be utilized for identity theft purposes.

In Oregon in 2012, an identity thief stole checks from the back of a new checkbook that had been sent by mail to the account holder and delivered to the account holder’s mailbox where the thief managed to steal the checks. He then merely forged the account holder’s name on to the real checks to draw money from the victim’s account. Fortunately, the identity thief was at the bank cashing one of the stolen checks at the same time that the account holder was reporting the theft and the identity thief was captured.

Not even legitimate United States Postal Service mailboxes are safe from identity thieves. In April 2004, law enforcement investigators uncovered an identity theft ring in Indiana that utilized a combination of high-technology computers with a low-technology metal device that the identity thieves installed in the familiar United States Postal Service blue mailboxes found on many street corners and into which we all deposit our mail. The device that resembles a snorkel is called a “mail stop.” It collects the mail that later is gathered by the mail thieves without their having to make an apparent break-in to the mailbox, which would have alerted postal authorities. What the thieves looked for was the usual sensitive material, checks and billing account information that could be transformed through sophisticated computer programs to produce phony driver’s licenses and blank checks.

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