UNION, NJ — Former Union Mayor Anthony Russo had never heard the term “mailbox fishing” when an official from TD Bank called him in early December.
The bank representative wanted to know if he had written a check for $10,000.
“Absolutely not,” Russo said.
But somebody had cashed a check for $10,000 with his signature.
Russo was learning he had just become the victim of not only mailbox fishing but also the usually affiliated crime of “check washing.”
Russo and the bank determined the check cashed was one he had written for $10 to the Union County Surrogate. The payee and dollar amount had been whited out and changed.
Russo immediately called his bank, ConnectOne, and alerted them to the situation. They investigated and told him someone was attempting to cash another check he had written in Harlem, at 126th Street and Lenox Avenue. Russo stopped payment on it.
“The first was cashed at TD Bank,” he said. “The bank is stuck for the $10,000.”
Russo knew he had placed the two checks into the blue public mailbox on the southwest corner of Morris and Stuyvesant avenues across from his office days before, and called the U.S. Postal Service. The customer service representative told him his mail apparently had been fished out of the box.
The process involves attaching a glob of a sticky substance, like that found inside a rodent or insect trap, to the end of a thin rope or string. The perpetrator opens the mailbox, inserts the sticky glob and closes the door. The glob falls and attaches itself to an envelope or envelopes at the bottom. The thief then pulls the string back up to retrieve the mail. Smudges of glue on the mailbox are an indication it may have been hit.
Russo said he had also heard of a sleeve, bag or net being inserted into the mailbox, undetectable to the average person, and then retrieved later. Greg Kliemisch, of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service Office in Newark, said he was unaware of that technique.
“It’s nothing we’ve come across,” he said.
Mailbox fishing is a crime that has been occurring in the New York area, including in four New Jersey counties, during the past year, according to Kliemisch.
“A lot of this is originating in the five boroughs (of New York City),” Kliemisch said in a Jan. 5 phone interview. “It’s definitely on a large scale. It’s not lone wolves. It’s a coordinated effort.”
Previous mailbox fishing expeditions have occurred in Bergen, Passaic, Middlesex and Essex counties, Kliemisch said. The Postal Inspection Service, following an inquiry from LocalSource, has added Russo’s case to a growing investigation that involves state and local law enforcement and already has resulted in several arrests and convictions.
Kliemisch didn’t know the number of arrests, nor would he say in which specific towns the mail thefts have occurred as it could compromise ongoing investigations. He added that some of the arrests and convictions involved minors.
Although Russo’s case has been added to those reported in the past year, a check of media reports show mailbox fishing is a phenomenon at least seven years old.
The thieves are looking for checks, cash, credit cards — anything of monetary value. Any valueless mail is discarded, Kliemisch said.
“I never dreamed people would go that extent,” Russo said in a Dec. 28 interview. “I hesitate putting anything in the mailbox. I won’t do it. I will never know.”
Russo subsequently learned of three additional checks that were cashed fraudulently, all deposited at the same mailbox on Morris and Stuyvesant, but on different days, between late November and early December. He said he only discovered them while reviewing his December bank statement.
He stated that he’s suspicious that postal employees may be providing information to thieves as to which mailboxes are the best targets, and thinks the FBI should be involved.
Kliemisch said the postal inspection service is trying new methods to limit and halt fishing.
“One of the many initiatives the U.S. Postal Inspection Service has spearheaded is the use of retrofitted mailboxes with additional security devices installed at select locations to address the mailbox fishing issue,” he said.
Other tips to be mindful of, Kliemisch said, include:
• Deposit outgoing mail into blue collection boxes before the final pickup of the same day of deposit. Check the pickup schedule times posted on the box to ensure your mail will not sit in the box overnight or over the weekend.
• Collect your mail from your mailbox every day as soon as possible after it is delivered. Do not allow mail to accumulate, even in a locked mailbox.
• If you plan on traveling and will not have access to your daily mail delivery please consider placing your mail on hold at your local office, via online or in person.
• If you have concerns about security in your neighborhood, place mail in a collection box in another area, in a secure receptacle at your place of business, or at a post office.
• Monitor and review your financial statements regularly (bank/credit card) to ensure that no suspicious or unauthorized activity has occurred.
• If someone suspects a mailbox has been tampered with or they believe their mail has been stolen, they are urged to contact the postal inspection service at 877-876-2455.
Russo said he believes thieves concentrate on business areas of towns, since that’s where the most financial transactions would occur via the mail.
But Kliemisch said that’s not necessarily true.
“The mailbox fishing has occurred in many areas within a particular town,” he said. “The subjects have been so brazen to target mailboxes in front of post offices, local municipal buildings, business centers and more commonly residential areas. The subjects involved in these crimes have no favorite ‘fishing spot’ per se.”