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Thousands of mail theft reports, but few arrests, according to Postal Inspectors' own data

Thousands of mail theft reports, but few arrests, Postal Inspectors' own data show
Thousands of mail theft reports, but few arrests, Postal Inspectors' own data show 05:47

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Stolen mail costs Americans a shocking amount of money, and the criminals aren't getting caught. 

CBS 2 has been reporting on the problem for years, and now, by following a trail of data, has learned why the process of securing the mail is failing. 

Protecting the mail is the U.S. Postal Inspectors' (USPIS) job. 

The agency's data show it hasn't made a dent in investigating or arresting those accused of mail theft in the past few years.

Sean Irwin's grandmother is 82 years old. He treasures the letters she sends him. Now, he's a victim of mail theft.  

"My grandmother sent me a birthday card. It was a day late, and then it was like, cut open, mutilated," Irwin said. "Why is it being opened and ransacked across your neighborhood? Is nothing sacred?!"

What's in the mail doesn't just hold emotional value. It's not just letters in the mail. It's livelihoods.

One small business owner, who asked not to be identified, said nearly $288,000 in checks incoming and outgoing to and from his business were stolen.

"This situation is a little bit more sophisticated than what's being led on here," the business owner said. 

He's right. 

Every blue mailbox has a key called an arrow key. Postal carriers use it to open blue boxes and large mailboxes in apartments or condo buildings. The same key opens everything across a particular zone.

"I think it's scary," the business owner said, "that one key can open all the mailboxes in any given zone."

The postal inspectors investigated this small business owner's case in 2021. Since then, nothing.

When CBS 2 began asking postal inspectors about theft, the conversation became repetitive, especially about Chicago-specific data CBS 2 received through the Freedom of Information Act.

CBS 2 found that the agency hadn't been keeping track of arrow key thefts until 2021, according to the USPIS data obtained by CBS Chicago. 

The data also showed USPS hadn't made a single arrest for an arrow-key-related theft between 2020 and March 2023.

 "I feel the information you have might not be 100 percent correct,"  said Nicholas Bucciarelli, Assistant Inspector in Charge, Chicago Division, US Postal Inspectors.

When told that information came from his agency, he said, "Again, I don't want to discuss that information because I feel that information is incorrect."

Following our interview, USPIS pointed to at least three arrow-key-related arrests that happened after we received our data from them.  

USPIS data shows 16,000 theft reports in Chicago between January 2020 and March 2023. They've investigated 77 and made 36 arrests.

USPIS claims that the arrest number is higher.

"We have the resources aligned with where they need to be to best investigate these cases," said Bucciarelli.

When pressed to explain why there were still nearly 16,000 open cases, Bucciarelli said, "I think those numbers are inaccurate, so I don't want to comment on that."

There is a possible silver lining for blue boxes – a new plan to help this problem.

"We're in the process of hardening targets to make them less desirable by these criminals," said Bucciarelli.

The plan includes adding 49,000 advanced electronic locks and 12,000 high-security collection boxes to "high-risk" areas nationwide. It's a dent in USPS's total number of mailboxes, 139,409 nationwide.

The locations and timing for installation of those locks and boxes in Chicago are still to be determined. Postal inspectors would not say whether the plan includes getting rid of arrow keys. 

This plan for the future doesn't help those still suffering from open cases.

"I don't know why they can't backtrack to find that guy that was forging these checks," said the business owner, who noted that the person taking his checks tried to cash them using a fake business name, registered with the state, resembling the name of his business. 

CBS 2 tried to track down the fake business by going to the sham address, but hit a dead end. 

Without the authority of a federal agency, it's proved difficult to follow the evidence much further.

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