Betty, (that’s not her real name because she asked to remain anonymous) considers herself old school when it comes to her finances. She handles her and her mother’s business affairs, writing out as many as 30 checks monthly to cover household expenses. She would drop the payments in a mailbox outside the Pilgrim Post Office on Post Road in Warwick.
Then, several weeks ago, she started receiving notices that some of the bills she knew she’s paid hadn’t been paid. She remembered writing the checks and looked at her monthly bank statements. The checks she had signed were there, but they were made out for different amounts and to people she didn’t know.
Somehow and somebody had intercepted, altered and cashed the checks before arriving at their intended destination.
Betty called the Warwick Police. That’s when she learned of mailbox fishing, a crime that is sweeping parts of the country and has become more prevalent in Rhode Island.
Col. Rick Rathbun, Warwick Police chief said the “trend has picked up.” Since the first of the year, he said Warwick Police have responded to 44 complaints of mail fraud with the greatest percentage of those relating to mailbox fishing.
The department has made two arrests stemming from a stop made on Sept. 11.
Efforts to contact the Postal Service for comment at the local, state and national levels for this story were unsuccessful. While postal employees acknowledged an increase in mailbox fishing, none were in a position to provide official comment and while the calls were referred to someone else, no calls were returned.
According to stories in the Boston Globe and on NBC News, Boston area communities, sections of New Jersey and New Orleans have been hard hit with mailbox fishing.
A Boston Globe story quoted Wellesley Detective Mark D’Innocenzo as calling the situation as “out of control” with 15 to 20 open investigations.
As Col. Rathbun related, thieves attach string to a plastic bottle coated with a sticky substance often used for rodent traps that is lowered into the mailbox to retrieve mail that has been deposited. Using chemicals, thieves then remove the recipient’s name from checks and then rewrite them, often with increased amounts to themselves.
Since she was mailing a payment on her credit card, Betty realized the thieves also had that information and, as a consequence, put a hold on her credit card.
D’Innocenzo was quoted by the Globe as saying that once thieves have the checks and a signature they are capable of producing more forged signed checks. D’Innocenzo said investigators from police departments in Norfolk, Middlesex, Suffolk, and Bristol counties have teamed up with the Postal Inspection Service in hopes of halting the thefts and that they believe organized crime is involved.
Col. Rathbun said the Warwick department is working with the Postal Inspection Service, but did not go into details whether their investigation involved other departments.
The arrests made by Warwick Police appear to be a case of officers being especially alert in responding to a domestic disturbance. The officers stopped a silver Acura southbound on Post Road at 3:37 a.m. that was operating without headlights and fit the description of the vehicle involved in the domestic disturbance.
After questioning the driver, Victor Garcia Garcia, 20, of Providence, he and a juvenile passenger were told to get out of the car. It was then that Detective Hovsep Sarkisian found a collection of mail and checks made out to different businesses. According to the police report at first Garcia claimed he was not involved in acquiring the checks but knew they had been retrieved from a number of Warwick mailboxes. He later told officers he would take them to the mailboxes.
In the trunk of the car police found a plastic bottle coated with “rat trap” tied to a series of shoestrings.
Sarkisian followed up with the people whose names were on the checks and who verified the checks as theirs. According to the report, the checks retrieved by police totaled $5,157.03.
Garcia was charged with receiving stolen goods and was also issued a citation for the operation of an unregistered motor vehicle, improper use of registration or title and headlamps on vehicles. He is set to appear in court on Nov. 13.
According to the NBC News report, the problem seems to have been concentrated in the Northeast. Nationwide, there were 2,881 reports last year of people illegally pulling mail out of collection boxes, according to U.S. Postal Inspection Service data obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request. More than 1,530 of them were in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
In an effort to thwart the fishing thieves, the Postal Service is replacing some boxes with ones with a narrow opening just large enough to slip in an envelope in place of pull-down lids.
One of the new boxes is located on Broad Street in Pawtuxet across from Citizens Bank.
Online reports recommended the following:
* Do not place mail in a collection box after the last collection of the day, as posted on the decal on the blue box.
* Do not use a collection box if you see evidence of tampering — such as sticky edges or excessive paper trash near the box.
* And if you see unusual activity at a collection box, alert local law enforcement or your local post office who can reach inspectors.