It seems everyone is talking about mailbox burglaries in West Hollywood except for the U.S. Postal Service.
As WEHOville has reported, there have been a number of burglaries in recent weeks in which thieves apparently use a “master key” or “arrow key” from the local Post Office to enter lobbies of apartment and condo buildings and then open all of the mailboxes and cart away the mail.
One risk is that local residents might miss a check or something else of value in the mail. But Sgt. Richard Bowman of the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station notes that a bigger risk is identity theft. By getting access to personal mail — credit card and bank statements, Social Security statements, etc. — thieves have information they can use to make illegal credit card charges or possibly make wire transfers from bank accounts.
The Sheriff’s Station is working with postal inspectors to investigate the thefts (Bowman said a couple of people actually were arrested four or five weeks ago when they were spotted with other people’s mail in their hands). WEHOville has been unable to get accurate information on how many recent thefts have occurred, but it is clear that there have been at least three and maybe as many as 18 in the past month or two. One of them was captured by a condominium video camera. Other photos from security cameras make clear that multiple people are involved in the thefts.
WEHOville has asked the U.S. Postal Inspector’s Office to explain how these thefts can happen and what the Postal Service intends to do to prevent them in the future. The answer from Stacia Crane of the Postal Inspection Service: “The investigation is progressing, but we can’t release any details at this time.”
So we’ve done our own research, which makes clear that the problem is poor management of the local post offices, which has been documented in other situations. Owners of multi-family buildings are required to install group mailboxes that can be accessed with a master key that also can be used to gain access to a bank of individual mailboxes in a building’s lobby or mailroom. Such master keys are supposed to be kept in a lock box at the local post office. A postal carrier signs in for his key when he begins his delivery round and is supposed to keep the key attached to his body on a chain. When the postal worker returns from his route, he is supposed to return the master key to a lock box at the Post Office. Apparently that isn’t happening. Whether an individual master key gives access to all multi-unit mailboxes in a particular ZIP Zone or only to those on a particular carrier’s route is unclear from the information we have found. That’s another question the Postal Service has declined to answer.
So what can residents of multi-unit buildings in West Hollywood do? Sgt. Bowman suggests removing your mail as early as possible each day, noting that the thefts appear to be occurring late at night. But the real solution — one the City of West Hollywood and its City Council should push for — is to have the U.S. Postal Service immediately replace master key locks in all buildings served by carriers who cannot produce their master keys for inspection or who are known to have lost such keys. Residents who can document theft of their mail or identity theft because of illegal use of master keys might also consider bringing civil suits against the Post Office to force it to act.
The U.S. Postal Service has a growing reputation for poor service and incompetence. We shouldn’t have to pay for it.