The Fate of the Once Mighty Mailbox Marches On

There are few mailboxes left in East L.A., and from the looks of it, a good portion of those are likely being targeted for theft

By C. J. Salgado, Contributing Writer
Published on LatinoLA: November 22, 2013

The Fate of the Once Mighty Mailbox Marches On

With today's ubiquitous cell phones, electronic mail, and Internet, it's ever less likely that we, especially digital-savvy youth, need to think about the regular mail service, i.e., "snail mail," except maybe for when the holidays are upon us like now when we might send a real greeting card, for example.

So a couple of months ago I paid a late night visit to my local mailbox in East Los Angeles to do just that. Yes, I physically went to drop off a greeting card at a mailbox, but I'd soon discover a disturbing truth about this once-routine ritual: mail theft is a growing and regular fact of life now, despite a decline in mailboxes. And, unless you become aware of it and take precautions, you might be its next victim because it's easy to miss its telltale signs.

You see, that night, because of limited parking space, I parked my vehicle a short distance from and across the street from the mailbox. As I was about to step out, I noticed two adult women standing immediately next to the mailbox. I observed that one seemed to have her hand inside the lid while the other stood beside her and kept sweeping her head around as if on the look out.

Thinking it suspicious, I waited a few more minutes and called the East L.A. Sheriff's Station. They took down my information and indicated an officer would be dispatched. However, soon after, the suspects left before the patrol car could arrive. Spooked, I decided not to drop off my mail then but instead to return later.

The next day, I returned to the mailbox from the night before to send my mail and to check out "the scene of the crime" in daylight, so to speak. I opened the lid on the mailbox to drop in my mail. When I let go of the lid and opened it back again to make sure my mail went in, I noticed it was still on the lid. I put my hand in to push it forward and felt a sticky substance on the inside of the lid. My mail was actually stuck to the lid! I wondered if this could have anything to do with last night's incident?

Yes, I would come to realize, likely it did. That incident was what prompted me to investigate the matter further, finding out that there are few mailboxes left in East L.A., and that, from the looks of it, a good portion of those are likely being targeted for theft. What I came to learn, illustrates general concerns and issues about mail theft from mailboxes, a widespread crime not just limited to East L.A, as well as on the demise of the mailbox itself.

You might be asking what methods are being used in mail theft these days. Well, common modi operandi are (1) using "fishing devices," whereby the criminal sticks into the mailbox opening a device like a mini-blind slat covered in a glue to fish out whatever mail sticks to it; (2) breaking into United States Postal Service (USPS) vehicles while carriers walk their rounds, and, as I had just experienced firsthand, (3) placing a sticky substance on the inside lid of mailboxes so that any mail dropped into it will stick to the inside of the lid (only to be later collected by the perpetrator). Each of these methods provides criminals access to other's mail.

Ultimately, the criminals are after mailed valuables like government or personal checks, credit cards, and documents containing personal information useful in identity theft. Personal checks we send for bill payments, for example, may be "washed" and used with forged signatures. While those blank credit card checks sent to us as "cash advances" often may likewise be used fraudulently.

Wow, do times change. When I was growing up in East L.A. I remember a mailbox being only a few blocks away from home. I had a pen pal in New Jersey, so I'd run over to the mailbox to send her mail. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find a mailbox in East L.A. These street-side mailboxes, or "Blue Boxes" as the USPS officially refers to them as, have been disappearing from our landscape over the last few years, victims of the changing communication and business habits of the digital world and of the failing financial health of USPS as fewer and fewer regular mail pieces are sent via mailboxes.

In fact, there are fewer than 10 mailboxes left in East L.A. This averages to about one mailbox per square mile in this community of over 125, 000 residents! Not even the curbside mailbox by the East L.A. Post Office survived for it was removed over three years ago, reportedly due to high mail theft and low mail volume. These few might be the remaining survivors of a dying breed, forgotten and neglected for there may be no way to bring them back from their certain death.

Consider that when I conducted a recent survey of the existing mailboxes in East L.A., I found that about half of them contained a sticky substance on the inside of the lid! Some also appeared rather dirty or otherwise in need of maintenance. I'd say the "best one," was at the East L.A. Civic Center. I also re-visited the very one where that incident occurred about two months back and, surprisingly and to my concern, it still had the sticky substance on the inside of the lid! Apparently, at least some of these mailboxes are not being regularly monitored or serviced by the USPS for indications of theft or needed maintenance. However, since these mailboxes are visited daily by USPS mail carriers, arguably, they should be readily subject to regular inspection. Why they are not, I'd like to know.

So the inevitable fate of the once mighty mailbox marches on. Perhaps, we can help by being observant and calling in instances of suspicious mailbox activity. Because mail theft is a federal charge, usually local law enforcement won't do much on these cases. Rather the Postal Inspection Service of USPS has jurisdiction as the designated federal law enforcement agency. In fact, by calling them at 1-877-876-2455, they can address issues like mail or identity theft and fraud. However, if forged checks are involved, for example, local law enforcement will typically follow-up on that aspect of it.

Will the mailboxes survive much longer given these circumstances? Probably not, unless USPS is willing and able to invest in "smart" mailboxes, utilizing heavy-duty construction and high-tech security features. Otherwise, as they say, all good things must come to an end.

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