By Mark J. Valentino
Editor and Publisher
As if the COVID pandemic did not cost enough in the loss of life with more than one million American deaths, the stress on our healthcare delivery system and its frontline providers, job losses stemming from the economic downturn and efforts to curb the virus, and supply chain woes, criminals have found a new way to profit off this global challenge.
Since COVID began, criminals have committed more armed robberies to steal United States postal carriers’ master keys. These keys open the blue postal boxes conveniently located on streets in your community or the mailboxes in the lobby of your condo or apartment building; often, the keys open street mailboxes within an entire ZIP code. When criminals steal these keys, residents in large areas suffer surging crime sprees.
Increasingly, thieves find other ways to break into postal boxes at night, stealing personal and business checks before the mail can reach the United States Postal Service (USPS) for safe delivery. Once stolen, “check washing” occurs; this problem is occurring across the country, with this community seeing a significant increase in mail theft, check laundering, and fraudulent check cashing.
Much of the dark money criminals launder through washed checks fuels gangs’ and drug dealers’ illegal enterprises, with others engaging in this illegal activity after seeing how lucrative it can be. Criminals use common household detergents to wash away ink on stolen checks and rewrite them to fraudulent sources, often cashing them at currency exchanges or through ATMs.
“The U.S. Postal Inspection Service [USPIS] is the federal law enforcement branch of the USPS,” said Silvia Carrier, postal inspector and public information officer for USPIS. “We focus on criminal investigations involving the U.S. Mail.
“We have several investigations involving theft of postal property,” explained Carrier, although she could not comment on those investigations. “Postal inspectors partner with local police departments and other federal agencies on these investigations,” she said.
Recently, USPIS worked with the Evanston Police Department and its investigative services unit on a string of robberies of USPS postal carriers. Police took Evanston resident Everett Pullett into custody on Sept. 28 after identifying him as a suspect in robberies on Sept. 26 and 27. While executing a search warrant at Pullett’s residence, investigators found a Glock 36 handgun, proceeds from the robberies, and clothing worn during the robberies. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office approved felony charges of two counts of armed robbery and one count of unlawful use of a weapon by a felon. Pullett also had an outstanding warrant for his arrest.
More thefts in this area
Alderpersons Nicole Lee (11th Ward) and Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th Ward) are seeing more thefts from USPS mailboxes and check washing in Bridgeport and in East Pilsen and Little Italy, respectively. Other areas within the Gazette Chicago coverage area also are affected, along with the rest of the city and suburban area.
“We are seeing a significant increase in the number of constituents coming into the [25th] ward office with stories of stolen checks and other important documents,” explained Sigcho-Lopez. “Some are even complaining of medicines being stolen from their mailboxes. It’s very sad because many are senior citizens or those with disabilities, and they are among the most vulnerable in our community.
“They are English speaking, Spanish speaking, and those speaking Mandarin and Cantonese,” Sigcho-Lopez noted. “The 25th Ward is among the most diverse in the city—I am glad we have staff speaking various languages to assist them—but, yes, these postal crimes are on the increase. We are even seeing residents from other parts of the city coming to our ward office because we have the language services available.
“I have reached out to U.S. Senator [Richard] Durbin [D-IL] and Congresswoman Marie Newman [D-3rd] requesting federal attention to this matter,” he added. In the crime wave’s early days, Sigcho-Lopez also contacted Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia [D-4th], whom he said was sensitive to the matter and explained that part of the problem stems from former President Donald Trump’s appointment of Louis DeJoy as postmaster general; DeJoy attempted to dismantle the USPS through staffing and service reductions and other tactics.
Sigcho-Lopez believes the number of local cases may be underreported as many victims do not know where to seek help or have not contacted the USPIS. “Anyone who is a victim of fraudulent check washing or items stolen from U.S. postal boxes should call the Postal Inspection Service at (877) 876-2455,” said Sigcho-Lopez.
Our Lady of the Holy Family Parish a victim
In February, Our Lady of the Holy Family Parish (OLHF), located in Little Italy, became a victim of this widening scheme.
“We had just begun our weekly staff meeting, and I had my laptop open, looking at our parish bank account to provide a financial report,” explained Catherine Foreman, who serves as director of liturgical music and parish operations at OLHF. “I placed 12 checks in the postal mailbox in front of our rectory at 1335 W. Harrison Street on Feb. 14 and within days noticed fraudulent activity. My heart sank when I saw what had happened as I am responsible in large part for managing the parish’s finances. I immediately alerted our pastor, Fr. Peter McQuinn, and left the meeting to contact our bank,” Foreman added.
The 12 laundered checks represented a two-week cycle of bills paid by the parish. “These were utility bills, checks for church supplies, for new hymnal books, and payments to other vendors,” Foreman explained. “I had to create a new checking account immediately and contact each vendor. Once the vendors knew what happened, they were understanding and waived their late fees. I also quickly moved to paying as many of our bills as possible online and through ACH [automatic clearing house] transactions. I also contacted the US Postal Inspection Service, the Chicago Police Department, and the local office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI], at the request of Chicago police.”
In total, the thieves washed the 12 checks and re-wrote them for the original total of $14,000. According to Foreman, criminals made all the checks out to the same party, someone named “Ian Lee.” Through her own due diligence, Foreman found someone cashed several of the checks at a bank in Hawaii.
Fortunately for Foreman and OLHF, the parish’s bank returned the stolen money within one week. “They [the thieves] kept the same dollar amounts on the checks but changed the name on each to cash them illegally,” said Foreman. “It was really disconcerting to see how sloppy the thieves’ efforts were. You could clearly see some of our original writing beneath the new text. How these checks cleared any financial institution was very surprising and disappointing.”
It took Foreman three months and 15 to 20 hours of work per week, diligently checking each day to make sure the parish’s checking account had normal activity, to get the account in order. She stayed in touch with the bank and the parish’s vendors. Only after 90 days did Foreman breathe a sigh of relief. At one point in the process, Chicago Police followed up with Foreman, but she has not heard from USPIS or the FBI since filing her reports.
“The postal box in front of our rectory building [at 1335 W. Harrison St.] is a real problem,” said Foreman. “We even had a bunch of weekly parish bulletins stolen from the that mailbox and dumped behind the home of a parishioner. We don’t place checks in that mailbox anymore.”
Foreman has several take-aways to share with others. “Check your bank account online frequently and pay as many bills as possible online or through ACH transactions,” she said. “Only mail personal and business checks at a postal box you feel is secure or at the post office.”
Bank offers perspective
A spokesperson for Fifth Third Bank in the Gazette Chicago coverage area also has seen an upswing in postal theft and check washing. The representative asked that their name be withheld for this story.
“We are seeing, on average, two to three customers coming in per week with monies being stolen from their checking accounts due to postal theft,” said the Fifth Third representative. “I have heard anecdotally through customers and local political officials that numerous postal boxes in Pilsen along 18th Street, Ashland Avenue, and Halsted Street are being broken into. One of our bank’s security guards saw a postal box near our branch office not closed all the way, and we immediately contacted the Post Office.
“The process to reinstate funds into clients’ accounts could take upwards of three to six months, but we try and work more quickly knowing the financial hardships this is causing our clients. People’s reactions when they come to the bank and ask how they lost so much money run from panic, to shock, to fear. They are worried about getting behind with their bills and having creditors coming after them. They are not only looking to us for help but for guidance to not fall victim again.
“Many of our clients who have been victim of these crimes are elderly, and English is not their first language,” the spokesperson added. “So many are not adept at paying their bills online, which is the safest way to pay bills these days. We are encouraging our clients to only drop off envelopes containing checks at a branch of the US Postal Service.”
Some safety precautions include using a pen with indelible black gel ink that can’t be erased. If you do place your mail with checks in a street mailbox, do so right before the last pickup at that mailbox.
U.S. Postal Inspection Service offers tips to the public to protect their mail:
• Avoid having incoming or outgoing mail sit and accumulate in your mailbox: promptly remove mail from your mailbox after delivery, especially if you’re expecting checks, credit cards, or other negotiable items.
• Place outgoing mail inside a Postal Service facility.
• If you do not receive a check or other valuable mail when expected, contact the issuing party as soon as possible.
• Sign up for USPS Informed Delivery at https://www.usps.com/manage/informed-delivery.htm to have a better idea of what mail you can expect delivered to you each day.
• Monitor your financial accounts and credit profiles for any fraudulent activity even if you have not been a victim of mail theft. Contact your financial institution immediately concerning any suspicious activity. Early detection is important, so consider credit freezes with the three major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax).
The U.S. Postal Service delivers more than 150 billion pieces of mail every year to more than 150 million addresses all throughout the country. Sending mail is actually one of the most secure ways to send information and commerce. If a postal customer does fall victim to mail theft or identity theft as a result of mail theft, immediately file a report with local law enforcement and with USPIS at (877) 876-2455. Also, closely monitor financial accounts and credit profiles to get ahead of any fraudulent activity.