Brooklyn Heights

Thieves are fishing checks from mailboxes in Brooklyn Heights

Beware of sticky slots

March 23, 2023 Mary Frost
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BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — These crooks are literally sticky-fingered.

The slots of most of the U.S. Postal Service mail collection boxes on the sidewalks of Hicks Street and Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights are regularly coated with a sticky adhesive, a sure sign that thieves are using glue boards designed to trap vermin to “fish” mail out of the boxes.

A survey conducted on March 21 and 22 found that all the mailboxes on Henry and Hicks streets, from Middagh Street to Atlantic Avenue were sticky, except one. One mailbox — at the corner of Hicks and Pierrepont Street — had an entire Tomcat glue board stuck to it right under the slot. 

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Thieves get around theft-protection slots by tying strings to the flat, letter-sized glue traps and lowering them into the boxes. Besides acting as the “hook” used to fish out mail, the sticky residue can also prevent letters from falling all the way into the boxes. While Postal Service employees often clean the slots, the glue usually soon reappears.

Another survey of the same boxes on March 23 found many of the slots had been cleaned or partially cleaned. 

People have scrawled warnings about the sticky mail slot on this mailbox on Hicks Street in the south Heights. Checks totaling multiple thousands of dollars were fished out of this box recently. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

‘Check washing’

Using a technique known as “check washing,” thieves apply common household chemicals to bleach off the intended payee’s name and make the checks out to themselves. They often add a few zeros to the amount. Sometimes they steal the victim’s identity (address, bank account numbers) as well.

“We have had about five checks stolen,” Betsy Rodgers, who lives with her husband Robert in the south Heights, told the Brooklyn Eagle.

Rodgers said they discovered the theft in early March. “You don’t know about it for a month,” she said. “We were able to put a stop on three of the checks. We called the bank and they canceled them. The other two — the big ones — were cashed.”  

Fortunately, the bank eventually returned their money.

“I spoke to the police,” Rodgers said. “He said, ‘Lady, have you learned a lesson? You don’t put checks in mailboxes.’ So, this is a heads up. I suggest taking your mail directly to the post office. If you do use a mailbox, use one in a well-traveled area. If you are mailing a check in a public mailbox, mail it right before pickup. Even better, find other ways to pay.”

The slot on the mailbox closest to the Rodgers’ house was sticky on March 21. In addition, two people had written warnings on the box. One read, “Someone put glue in the slot!” Another said, “My letter got stuck on this box on 1/3/23. I think I got it loose. Please check.”

The slots on mailboxes all over Brooklyn Heights were found to be coated with a sticky substance used by thieves to steal mail. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Mail fishing is rampant, Brooklyn Heights Nextdoor users report

On March 22 a Brooklyn Heights resident (name withheld) posted to the popular Nextdoor app:

“At about 2:10 a.m. today I saw 2 men messing with the blue USPS mailbox on the corner of Joralemon and Henry. I think they were fishing for checks … One of them was holding a long black object while looking in the mailbox, and mentioned something to his friend about envelopes. Right as I passed them, they quickly got into a black or navy-blue sedan and drove off quickly towards Atlantic Ave.” 

Numerous neighbors replied immediately to this post. 

One said, “I had a check stolen out of that exact mailbox! They erased the payee info and wrote a new check for $1600.”

Another wrote, “I think they did the same to the mailbox in Orange and Hicks. I had sticky stuff all over my fingers after trying to mail something.”

And another, “My letters were stolen from Hicks and Clark mailbox. I dropped off cards at the Cadman Plaza mailbox and my letters were stolen there too.”

A USPS warning about the safe times to mail checks, and a number to call if you see something “fishy.” Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Investigation underway

Mailbox fishing is not the only way crooks are getting their hands on checks. At least one co-op in Brooklyn Heights was the target of a string of mail theft incidents starting in 2021. 

“I wrote a small check (under $10) in July 2021, against my checking account, payable to the company which provides my mail-order prescription drugs,” one Heights resident who wishes to remain unnamed told the Eagle. “My cooperative has a mail slot (next to the incoming mail boxes) for outgoing mail, which is picked up by the letter carrier.” 

“In mid-August, 2021, I noticed that this small check finally cleared my bank, but the amount was not for the small amount under $10, but was shockingly changed for a high four figure amount!” he said.

A copy of the check provided by the victim’s bank showed that both the amount and the payee had been erased and replaced, along with the signature. (The legitimate name was rewritten in the new, different handwriting.)

“Since the check was mailed in an outgoing mail slot in the lobby of my building, it would appear to have arrived at my neighborhood post office (Zip 11201). I learned that this incident would be considered an internal issue,” said the co-op resident.

As it turned out, another check-washing incident happened to the same co-op resident several months later. This time, the bank double-checked before cashing the check. 

“The bank closed my account and then required me to open a new one,” he said. “As per the suggestion of the bank, I am now paying most of my bills online.”

The resident added, “Both the officer of the bank who interviewed me, and the special agent at the USPS Inspector General Office, indicated to me that the Zip code of 11201 has been the location of many cases of check washing.”

The problem was traced to a post office sorting center,” he said.

U.S. Postal Service Inspector Daniela Lella told the Eagle that the Inspector General’s Office “is aware of complaints in the 11201 area and we are actively investigating those complaints.”

This mailbox on Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights was one of numerous boxes on Henry and Hicks streets where the mail slot was recently coated with a sticky substance used by thieves. This particular box had a vermin glue trap stuck right under the mail slot when surveyed on Monday. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Brooklyn Heights Association concerned 

The BHA is very concerned about the on-going mail theft in our neighborhood,” Kim Glickman, deputy director of the Brooklyn Heights Association, told the Eagle. 

“We’ve been in touch with Congressmember Goldman’s office along with other elected officials, the NYPD and the USPS to identify ways to deal with this problem. In the meantime, per the NYPD, we encourage people to mail payments directly from the post office, if at all possible, or make payments electronically using your personal computer and a secure WiFi,” Glickman said.

At a meeting earlier this week of the 84th Precinct Community Council, Commanding Officer Deputy Inspector Adeel Rana said that mailbox thefts reported to his Precinct were actually down from their peak during COVID. 

“It was a huge issue last year,” he said. The Precinct worked with the U.S. Postal Service and “apprehended a couple” of thieves, he said. These individuals had a master key, he added.

USPS says it has taken steps to tighten up the key distribution process.

D.I. Rana recommended that if people must write checks, they use Uni-Ball pens, which feature indelible ink.

Also speaking at the 84th Precinct meeting, Councilmember Lincoln Restler said his office was taking steps to reach out to Congressional representatives about the issue. After hearing from this paper about the large number of affected mailboxes, “This is a much more widespread issue than we realized,” he said.

Sometimes they steal the whole mailbox

New York Attorney General Letitia James in January issued a consumer alert to warn, “There has been a recent rise in mail theft, especially checks, credit cards, and other financial documents being stolen from mailboxes across New York City.”

In some instances, there have even been reports of individuals stealing entire mailboxes, she said.

The stealing of documents with personal and financial information can lead to additional crimes, including deed theft, James warned. In December, James broke up a deed theft ring that stole three homes worth more than $1 million.

Advice from the USPS

  • Mail letters directly from the Post Office or pay bills online.
  • If you must use a street mailbox, use a Uni-Ball-style pen and deposit letters right before a pickup.
  • If you suspect your mail was stolen or see a theft happening, contact police immediately and then report it to Postal Inspectors at 877-876-2455.
  • If you see glue, tape, or any other sticky substances on a mailbox, report it to your post office, Postal Inspectors, or the New York Division of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS). The USPIS can be reached at 212-330-2400; or online at www.uspsoig.gov/hotline .

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