Identity theft can play out in the physical world as well as online. Scammers use mail theft to steal cash, checks, or personal information that can be used to commit identity theft. To stay safe, consider signing up for Informed Delivery with USPS, and be sure to place a mail hold if you’re going out of town.
Mail theft is one of the oldest tricks in the scammer playbook.
In fact, it’s been around since the inception of the United States Postal Service (USPS), which has roots dating back to the 1700s — and sadly, mail theft is still prevalent today.
In 2021, the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) received close to 300,000 complaints of mail theft between March 2020 and February 2021. That’s a whopping 161 percent increase compared to the same timeframe in 2020.
Mail theft can lead to check washing, identity theft, and other types of fraud. But with a few key steps, you can secure your mailbox — and we can show you how.
How mail theft happens
Criminals may sort through stolen mail looking for cash, checks, or other sensitive financial information, such as bank account and credit card numbers. Or they might be on the hunt for other personally identifiable information (PII).
As a Senior Restoration Specialist at Allstate Identity Protection, Kelli Starks has seen a variety of stolen mail schemes play out.
“Most incidents occur when a criminal files a change-of-address form, so they start receiving a victim’s mail directly,” says Starks. “Unfortunately, it’s pretty easy for someone to request a change of address.”
Here are some other examples of how thieves get their hands on stolen mail:
They pluck incoming or outgoing mail from a residential mailbox
They target USPS mail carriers and steal letters from their trucks
They steal a postal worker’s “arrow” key in order to gain access to USPS collection boxes
They “dumpster dive” and swipe mail by rummaging through trash and recycle bins
How stolen mail can lead to identity theft
Your mail probably includes all sorts of sensitive documents and information.
Here are a few examples: credit card bills, pre-approved credit card offers, bank statements, tax documents, and government correspondence which may contain PII like your Social Security number, full name, birth date, and address — not to mention your bank account, credit card, and tax identification numbers.
With stolen PII, identity thieves can apply for credit cards, take out loans, file taxes, or obtain medical services in your name.
Mail thieves might commit identity theft themselves, or they might sell the stolen data to other identity thieves on the black market.
What is check washing and what does it have to do with mail theft?
Millions of checks are mailed every day. Thieves know this, and they’ve been known to take advantage.
When check theft happens, a victim may suffer financially. Checks typically contain a person's bank account and routing number, which are usually located on the bottom of the check — and that information can be used to transfer money out of your account.
Or, a stolen check may be “washed”, which is when a thief uses chemicals — typically nail polish — to strip the ink off a check that they’ve stolen. The fraudster will then either fill in the blank check with a new payee name and dollar amount and fraudulently cashes it themselves, or sell it on the dark web.
Criminals can even create forged copies of stolen washed checks, which can cause further financial damage.
Protect your mail and checks from thieves
The good news is that there are ways to protect against mail theft and check washing. Here’s what we recommend:
Sign up for Informed Delivery. Starks highly recommends that everyone create an account with USPS and sign up for Informed Delivery, a free service. “This lets you see a digital preview of your mail before it is delivered,” Starks says. “Once you’re set up, you’ll be able to monitor mail and package deliveries via email, the online dashboard, or the USPS mobile app. If mail was stolen from your mailbox, you’ll know — and be able to act — immediately.”
Don’t leave outgoing checks or sensitive documents in your mailbox overnight. Aim to put them in your mailbox as close to your collection time as possible. Better yet, hand them to your mail carrier directly, or drop them off inside the post office.
Be cautious with collection boxes. Likewise, avoid letting mail with checks or sensitive information sit in the blue USPS collection boxes peppered throughout towns. Wait until you know the mail will be collected that day — instead of leaving it overnight, over the weekend, or on federal holidays. Or, drop it off at the post office when it reopens.
When you travel, make a plan for your mail. If you’re going out of town, ask the USPS to put a hold on mail delivery until you’re back, or have a trusted neighbor or family member retrieve your mail daily.
Look out for any communications from USPS. Starks also noted that when USPS receives a request to redirect mail, they will send a confirmation postcard to the current address. “If you receive a notification that a change of address has been requested and you did not make this request, you should contact the USPS to notify them of the fraud and make a report,” Starks says. “Never assume there has just been a mix-up.”
Request digital bank statements, credit card bills, etc. Thieves can’t steal mail that was never sent. Opting in for digital statements can reduce the PII that passes through your mailbox. Just be sure your email account is properly protected from identity thieves as well.
Shred sensitive mail. If you no longer need them, shred any letters that contain your PII (like tax documents, credit card offers, and bank, credit card, and insurance statements) before disposing of them so that dumpster-diving thieves won’t have easy access to your information.
What to do if you’re a victim of mail theft or check fraud
Mail theft is a tricky crime because most victims don’t know that their mail has been stolen.
In the case of check theft, victims often find out the hard way: by seeing money disappear from their bank account.
In other cases, it can take months or even years for signs of identity theft to surface.
If you’re a member and you do see signs of identity theft, we’ll be here to guide you. Our identity specialists can provide you with more information on how to report mail theft and what to do next if your identity has been compromised.