WASHINGTON - The United States Postal Service has adopted a new pilot program to address thieves targeting postal workers.
Postal Inspector Michael Martel confirmed with FOX 5 that these criminals are attempting to steal a master key, called an "arrow key," to gain access to blue drop-off boxes and ultimately — your mail.
While the Postal Inspector’s Office has been reluctant to discuss these issues during open investigations, Martel did give FOX 5 an important update on Monday.
"Right now, the postal service is actually piloting a new, sort of mechanical-electronic interface on electronic blue boxes," Martel said. "It devalues those keys, if you will, which is our goal. Some astronomical claims have been made, and we want to devalue them. We don’t want them to be the only thing to get into those blue boxes."
For security reasons, the postal inspector did not say where these safety measures have been added or how many boxes in the greater D.C. region have been upgraded. However, he did confirm the District is involved in this pilot program.
The postal inspector did explain that the electric interface creates a two-step system to access the blue drop-off boxes that are being used in the pilot program. The master key alone won’t allow access.
Last year, FOX 5 reported on a Montgomery County man who tried to pay a $35 bill by sending a check in the mail. He dropped off the check at a nearby blue mailbox and later showed FOX 5 the same check had been flagged by the bank. Someone scrubbed certain information on the check and tried to cash it for nearly $2,000.
Mail carriers are still being robbed.
This past Friday, police said a suspect robbed a Prince George’s County mail carrier at gunpoint on Dutch Village Drive near Sheriff Road in Landover, Maryland. A suspect also robbed a mail carrier at around 11:43 a.m. in Potomac, Maryland on Oct. 20. Other incidents have also recently been reported across the region.
"The increase in theft and associated robberies include a shift in how mail thieves operate. While many instances of mail theft have traditionally been relatively unsophisticated and perpetrated by lone actors, recent trends demonstrate more organized criminal groups are seeking to steal identities and financial instruments from the mail," Delaware-Pennsylvania-2 District Manager Gary Varccarella said during a September 2022 testimony in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations hearing. "The growth of the dark web and encrypted messaging services have allowed criminals to traffic in financial instruments and personally identifiable information that can be taken from the mail in a much more organized and sophisticated manner. The Postal Inspection Service has dedicated resources to investigating illegal conduct on these platforms and will continue to monitor and protect against new threats as they change and evolve,"
The issue has gotten so bad that during that same September hearing, the National President for the Postal Police Officers Association, Frank Albergo, said a local Philadelphia news station reported, "98 arrow keys were stolen from January 2019 to February 2022. Of the 98, only three arrow keys have been recovered."
"Here at the postal inspection service, we want to keep the mail stream as safe as possible, and we want to tell the American people we are working very hard to do so," Martel said. "I just put a check for a personal bill payment in a blue box, myself. They are safe. And what you can do to protect yourself is to put mail into a blue box as close to the collection time as possible, and if you’re still unsure about it, walk it into your post office and put it in the slot in your post office lobby."
It’s the blue drop-off boxes located in neighborhoods further away from the post offices that have mostly been impacted.
Martel is asking people to look out for suspicious activity around those boxes, especially at odd hours, and if the person is not in uniform.
If you do see something strange, the postal inspector says to call both local police and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service at 1-877-876-2455. Armed robbery of a USPS employee is a violation of Title 18, U.S. Code Section 2114, and is punishable by up to 25 years in prison.