EVERETT — It is seldom a headline-grabbing crime, but it can take an enormous financial and personal toll on its victims.
Mail thieves operate year round but were especially busy during the holidays, trolling from box to box and grabbing what they could get their hands on.
In November, Sgt. Gregory Sanders of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office retrieved mail strewn over six blocks in the Getchell area.
Deputy Jim Miner found piles of mail after tracking two sets of shoe prints into some woods near Granite Falls.
In Lake Stevens last month, there were roughly 70 complaints of stolen mail, including many packages.
Typically, the thieves are looking for money, checks and credit cards.
Then again, “simple mail theft can lead to bigger things,” Sanders said.
Bits of information, such as Social Security numbers and dates of birth, can be cobbled together to develop profiles and steal identities. Snohomish County Superior Court dockets are rife with cases of identity theft, many having started at the mailbox. Nationwide, billions of dollars are stolen each year through identity theft.
The sheriff’s office and the cities it contracts with receive about 3,000 reports a year of credit and debit card fraud, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Shari Ireton. Many began with mail theft.
Often, mail thieves discard paperwork that is of no use to them, but could be important or sentimental to the intended recipients. After a spate of thefts near Christmas, several deputies became ad hoc mailmen and delivered the purloined postage.
Miner continues to look for a widow, perhaps of Albanian descent, who’d lived in the Lake Stevens area. He has her husband’s death certificate and military records that a thief dumped with other mail.
Last week, a man and woman were charged with mail theft after they were arrested on Christmas Eve in Sultan. Deputies believe the man was a lookout as the woman went from box to box, stuffing mail into an orange bag. She allegedly admitted to stealing from about 100 mailboxes and estimated that deputies would find at least that much more mail in a backpack inside a trailer she was using. Deputies did recover the additional stolen mail after serving a search warrant on the trailer.
Someone broke into post office boxes at the Gold Bar Post Office twice during the Christmas holidays. Local authorities are working with the U.S. Postal Inspector’s Office in the investigation.
Last week, Island County Sheriff Mark Brown sent an email alert about a rise in mail theft on both the north and south ends of Whidbey Island. He said it was likely that thieves were looking to steal people’s identification and checks.
Deputies identified a possible suspect driving a plum-colored Chrysler PT Cruiser with a dent in the rear hatch back. They’re asking anyone with information that could help the investigation to call 360-321-4400.
Sheriff Brown knows about mail theft firsthand.
Last year, he received an envelope through the mail from the U.S. Postal Service. The letter inside informed him that he had been the victim of mail theft. Attached to the letter was crumpled and water-logged paperwork related to the title of a home he had sold.
“It’s a huge problem,” Brown said.
Brown banded with neighbors to get locked boxes sunk into a concrete foundation.
These days, he is suggesting other people do the same.
Sometimes a locked box isn’t enough.
A few years ago, Cmdr. Dennis Taylor of the Lake Stevens Police Department had his entire mailbox stolen. It was a locked box that was snapped off its wooden post.
The thieves attempted to take out a loan under his name and he had to cancel his credit cards.
Police believe many mail thefts are related to people looking for ways to feed their drug habits.
“They don’t get what they are doing to people,” sheriff’s Sgt. Sanders said.
Sanders and Miner had several tips to deter mail theft.
They suggest using locked boxes with heavy gauge steel and small mail slots. The thieves “don’t want to stay there long,” Miner said.
They also said it is OK to call 911, especially if the callers have seen something suspicious.
“We need their help, to use their eyes,” Miner said. “If you see it, call it.”
They urged people never to leave their mail in the box overnight and to have neighbors they trust hold on to it if they can’t check it themselves.
When sending something of value, they recommend calling the intended recipient ahead of time to watch out for the letter or package. Ideally, they suggest not sending cash, checks or gift cards through the mail.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.