The holiday season might be over, but fishing season is in full swing as important envelopes and parcels are being plucked from street mailboxes — not by your friendly neighborhood postman, but instead by a criminal.
“What happens is you get to the post office, buy a thousand-dollar money order to pay your rent, put it in the mailbox, and some enterprising young individual comes along with a glue trap and string and takes your money order out,” said Terence O’Toole, deputy inspector of the New York Police Department’s 50th Precinct.
Mailbox fishing, as it’s more commonly known, has always been an issue — despite many Bronx mailboxes getting retrofitted to prevent that kind of theft — and it was on the minds of many Marble Hill residents during a recent town hall meeting with state Sen. Marisol Alcántara.
“It’s usually the first week of the month or at the end of the month, and they target a community like Marble Hill, where you have a lot of working-class folks that more likely don’t have checking accounts, don’t do anything online,” Alcántara said. “It’s a heavily immigrant population, and they know when it’s time to send your rent check.”
At the November meeting, Alcántara estimated that in just one week, her office received more than a dozen calls from people in despair because they’d dropped checks in mailboxes only to find out they’d been snatched up by mailbox fishers.
Finding help can be hard for many of these victims, Alcántara said, especially for many where English is not a first language.
But reports are finding a way to police, and officers are doing their part getting some of them off the street. In fact, eight were charged earlier this year in Manhattan federal court with bank fraud and mail theft conspiracy in the Bronx, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Yet, that makes just a small dent into solving the issue — which means those using mailboxes need to be prepared. In fact, police recommend dropping mail into the box just before it’s picked up, using collection times listed on the box. More importantly, don’t leave mail inside the box overnight.
Another trick, according to authorities, includes using gel pens on envelopes since it’s much harder for thieves to wash the writing off using acetone nail polish remover and readdress it to themselves.
When all else fails, there’s always the tried and true, U.S. Postal Inspection Service spokeswoman Donna Harris said: Place important parcels directly in the hands of a letter carrier, or visit the post office.
Although it might seem mailbox fishing is on the rise in the Bronx, Harris disagrees.
“We’ve retrofitted many boxes and we’ve noted a marked decline in complaints relative to mail theft,” she said.
But what if you find yourself the victim of mailbox fishing? Joselinne Minaya, director of the New York County district attorney’s Washington Heights office, said there’s still plenty you can do. The first step is go to the bank to try and determine who cashed the check, where it was cashed, and then filing a police report.
Still, it could take some time to replace stolen money — and if that money is rent, landlords will need to be a bit sympathetic.
But even when an arrest is made, once the check’s been cashed, oftentimes the money is lost, Minaya said — unless a judge institutes restitution as part of the sentence.
When a check is stolen, time is of the essence, O’Toole said. Yet, in situations like rent checks, it could be weeks before someone even realizes they’ve become a victim.
Perhaps the best defense, O’Toole said, would be convincing a landlord to set up a secure, online method to accept rent payments electronically.
Absent all that, Harris calls for vigilance, borrowing a line from a popular MTA safety campaign.
“It’s a collective effort,” she said. “Our customers are our first eyes and ears on the street. So if they see something, say something.”