By Matis Glenn
Letter carriers are known to live by the words, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Dutifully carrying out their mission, they are a symbol of dependability.
But what happens when, instead of the elements getting in the way of making deliveries, nefarious individuals steal mail? What if a faithful letter carrier unknowingly drops off stolen money or illegal materials?
And who ensures that the mail is safe for both the recipients and the letter carriers?
Enter the Postal Inspection Service. Regarded as the law enforcement arm of the USPS, the USPIS was founded in 1775 by colonial Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin.
What does this organization, older than the country it serves, do on a daily basis to protect U.S. citizens from theft and fraud?
Hamodia spoke with John Del Giudice, Assistant Inspector in Charge of the New York Division of the Postal Inspection Service, and Donna Harris, National Public Information Representative, to get insight into these matters, and to hear firsthand advice on how to protect oneself from being a victim of mail crime.
For starters, Mr. Del Giudice, how long have you been working with the USPIS, and what does your position entail?
John Del Giudice: Just this week, I celebrated my 19th year as a postal inspector. I started in 2004 and when I graduated our academy, I came right to New York. I spent my entire career here and, for the most part, I’ve worked in New York City, in all of the boroughs except for Staten Island. I’ve worked in a variety of different investigative areas, everything from fraud, mail theft, and money laundering, to narcotics interdictions, as part of my role as a postal inspector.
In 2015, I was promoted to team leader, which means I was then responsible for a team of inspectors.
Then in July of last year, I was promoted to Assistant Inspector in Charge. Since then, I’ve been more of an administrator, and responsible for Manhattan, the Bronx and JFK Airport. I have five teams that report to me that cover a variety of investigative areas and security issues, that make sure that our postal facilities are as secure as they can be.
I also have a team that covers JFK airport, which is a busy international mail hub. That team is multifunctional; they cover a variety of investigations, including narcotics interdiction, counterfeit goods, and revenue, which means counterfeit stamps and postage. They also handle any workplace violence, such as threats of assaults at the airport, so it’s a busy team in a busy area. … I’ve got my hands full.
My role right now is to make sure that these teams are accomplishing their mission, which is to protect our employees, the infrastructure, and our customers.
That’s quite a lot of responsibilities!
What sort of things have changed since then? The world was very different in 2004. What was it like to investigate fraud and prevent mail theft back then, and how have things changed?
John Del Giudice: That’s a really good question, Matis. What I’ve seen over 19 years is that you have cycles of crimes; some years, mail theft is more prevalent, and others, assaults and threats seem to pop. Other years there are more financial frauds.
To go back to 2004, and how things have changed, a lot of our crimes that we investigate now have a cyber component to them. There’s a lot more collaboration between [government] agencies that I see now compared with the past, that has happened as a result of these cyber components. We work with our partners in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Homeland Security, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Customs and Border Protection.
We work with those groups to combat crimes that may start in the cyber realm, including identity theft, which often begins in chat rooms, or dark web sites where personal information is being sold to people. When a person’s identity is stolen, criminals can open bank accounts in a victim’s name and request checks, which are then mailed to the “customer.” That’s where we come in.
I think we’ve adapted quite successfully to these new types of investigations, through this collaboration.
As you mentioned, your goal is to protect not only your customers, but also your employees. In 2001, a week after 9/11, there was a case of anthrax being sent through the mail. Have you encountered similar things during your tenure? And how does the USPS deal with such threats?
John Del Giudice: I was a civilian in 2001, and I was here in the city during 9/11 and the anthrax scare. But what I can say is that as a result of those incidents, the Postal Service has developed, by way of the Inspection Service, technologies and procedures for dealing with any type of suspicious or potentially dangerous or hazardous mailing.
We have an entire group of investigators that are trained in this manner; they’re called “dangerous mail specialists.” They’re equipped to go out and evaluate any type of a suspicious mailing, and they respond quickly if something looks suspicious. We’ve trained our employees to identify parcels that may contain a hazardous substance … For example, it’s leaking a powder or some type of liquid that might cause concern.
These inspectors respond immediately, wherever that package is within our network, if it’s at a plant, or a post office. They’re equipped with all sorts of devices, to be able to evaluate right then and there on the scene whether or not that parcel contains a hazardous substance, or if it’s leaking something like cleaning products, which can just be taped up and sent on their way.
I think a lot of people are under the impression that if there’s an issue with a package not being deliverable, it just won’t be delivered. But you’re saying that the Postal Service will sometimes repair the package to get it sent.
John Del Giudice: If something is completely undeliverable, then yes, it will be sent to our mail recovery center, which tries to contact the sender or the recipient to tell them that we have their package, and that it was undeliverable. In some cases, if it’s been damaged beyond being able to identify either the sender or recipient, then unfortunately it’s usually disposed of.
Can you give an example of a case you were personally involved in?
John Del Giudice: I’ve got a lot to choose from. Since we were talking about anthrax, 9/11, and the war on terror, I did have a case that had an international component to it. It involved an individual who was a senior subcontracts supervisor, working in Afghanistan. He was there as part of our military interventions in Afghanistan, working on various projects, and he was responsible for receiving bids on those projects from local subcontractors or vendors, who he would then pay for work if they had a successful bid.
This individual would receive gratuities from vendors, to whom he awarded jobs to with government money, which is illegal.
Since he was receiving a lot of cash from these various subcontractors, and he was in Afghanistan, he was buying postal money orders with his cash, and would mail them back to New York to a friend of his here in Manhattan. He would then go to post offices and cash out those money orders.
One of our clerks was very astute and happened to notice a pattern of activity. She had the same individual coming in, maybe two, three, or four times a week, looking specifically for her, and he was cashing out thousands of dollars in money orders per week. She noticed that these money orders had been issued out of an army post office in Afghanistan, called an APO.
This information was then relayed to us. Upon looking into this case, I was able to verify that these money orders were issued at the APO in Afghanistan, and I was able to identify the individual who was purchasing those money orders, and the individual who was passing the money orders. I had enough evidence to present this case to a prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York.
The senior subcontracts supervisor had been fired for committing some other violations that were against his company contract in Afghanistan, so he was back in New York. With the evidence that I had, I was able to conduct an interview with him, and he confessed to what he was doing. He admitted to receiving approximately $200,000 worth of illegal gratuities. He was arrested by me and prosecuted by the US Attorney’s Office. He actually pled guilty, and was sentenced to 41 months imprisonment by the judge, for receipt of illegal gratuities and money laundering, who felt that she was going to make an example of him because he was profiting from the war on terror. He was also ordered to forfeit $200,000, the amount he had received in illegal gratuities
We had a lot of people who had lost their lives here in New York, we had people who were losing their lives in Afghanistan, people who were sacrificing, and this individual was profiting.
How does the USPIS detect items that are illegal, such as narcotics or other contraband?
John Del Giudice: There are a lot of investigative tools that I can’t disclose just because of the nature of our investigations, but what I can say is that we rely to a large extent on intelligence and information that we receive. For example, we sometimes hear things from sources on the street that will give us information about particular mailings containing illegal materials.
And again, we do this in collaboration with other agencies that have their own investigative techniques, intelligence, and sources that are able to provide information. I think that’s where the real strength of the collaboration comes into play. We’re able to get information from a variety of different sources across different agencies. And the collaborative effort allows us to target criminal networks that are using the mail for nefarious purposes.
If we can switch gears, how prevalent is mail theft? What systems are in place to prevent it, and what is the success rate in recovering stolen items?
Donna Harris: I can give you some national statistics from our annual report. We made 1,511 arrests nationally for mail theft, with 1,263 convictions. Those are the latest stats that we have nationally.
Mail theft has been in the news a lot lately. We at the Postal Inspection Service, along with the Postal Service, have worked hard to combat it. For instance, in the New York area, we made some modifications to the mailboxes throughout New York, replacing the pull-down opening to a slot, and those mailboxes have held up and done a better job. We haven’t had theft of mail as we were having in the past, when it came to the old mailboxes.
Those innovations have helped prevent mail theft from the point of sending, but what about after drop-off?
Donna Harris: Well, once mail is delivered, it’s considered it’s gotten to its final location. If someone goes into someone’s mailbox and steals the mail …
At that point it’s not in your jurisdiction?
Donna Harris: It depends. If there’s a criminal ring going after mailboxes, we certainly would investigate those particular crimes and it would be considered by us to be mail theft.
But in terms of statistics regarding what happens after mail is delivered, we don’t have that information.
While we’re on the topic of mail theft at the point of delivery, what does the USPS recommend people do to prevent such things from happening?
Donna Harris: We ask people to bring your mail in every day. Don’t leave it in your mailbox. If you’re having a special package or something important delivered, and you can’t access it the day of delivery, we ask you to have it held at the post office, or have it delivered to someone else, a trusted friend or family member as opposed to letting it sit in the mailbox. We do know that at times, things happen when people leave their mail overnight, and it makes it susceptible to thieves.
John Del Giudice: I’d like to add that mail theft after delivery is a crime of opportunity, like many property crimes. So we do our absolute best, as Donna said, with our enhanced security measures in our blue collection and relay boxes. But, unfortunately, it is a crime of opportunity. Commerce has to move … but we do our best to make our collection boxes the hardest targets possible, since they’re in the street. It’s like a car parked on the street; you could have an alarm, and all sorts of security features, but if someone’s intent on getting into it, they’ll smash your window.
As Donna mentioned, once we deliver something to, let’s say, a building lobby, where we believe it to be secure, or where it’s the only option for our carrier to leave it, because the building doesn’t have a mailroom, unfortunately, that lobby is open. It’s not so much a question of whether or not it’s within our jurisdiction once it’s delivered; rather, we have very little control over the security of the building.
We suggest that buildings should have mailrooms, or you should have somebody receiving your parcels, so that they’re not out in the lobby, in a place where anybody who comes through the lobby may have the opportunity to steal the packages.
Same thing with delivering mail on somebody’s porch or their stoop … around the holidays, you hear stories of the “porch pirates.” People come and they’ll look for packages. It’s the same idea; we try to inform people that if you’re expecting a package — and you can know when it’s coming through our Informed Delivery Service — arrange for a neighbor or somebody else to pick this package up, or arrange to be home during the drop-off, because we don’t have control over the security on your property.
What other tips can you offer regarding mail theft?
Donna Harris: People should consider signing up for Informed Delivery Service through the USPS; it’s free, and customers can sign up on our website, usps.com. Once signed up, you’ll get an email every day stating what is coming in your mail on that particular day. It’s pretty accurate, although there are times when it might be off by a day. But if you’re expecting a package, and it’s a day late, that is cause to be suspicious.
Another tip is that if you usually receive mail every day and then, suddenly, for two or three days, you don’t receive mail, it might be time for you to call the Postal Service and ask if mail was delivered.
Those are some of the ways that you can protect yourself from mail theft.
What should people know about mailings which, for example, claim to be from their bank and are asking for personal information?
Donna Harris: When it comes to scams, we always use the adage of, “If it sounds too good to be true, it is.” Scammers use high-pressure tactics to get you to sign on the dotted line, give your credit card information, etc., right away.
We look at fraud as a one-way street. If you didn’t initiate the call or the action, then there’s no need for you to participate in what a scammer is telling you on the phone or via mail. So essentially, don’t give out your credit card information to someone you don’t know. No one needs your social security number, even when you go to the doctor. Most people have ID cards that have information already printed that links back to you for them to get payment.
If you get solicitations in the mail and they seem suspicious, throw them out. There’s no need to keep them. Take your information off of mailings such as magazines before throwing them out, and shred any banking information that you might receive. Don’t just throw it out in the trash.
John Del Giudice: This dovetails into something that needs to be discussed, namely how scammers victimize the elderly. Sweepstakes, lotteries, both foreign and domestic … just to underscore Donna’s point, you can’t win a lottery that you did not enter. It’s also illegal to enter a foreign lottery.
If you didn’t enter something to win, if you didn’t initiate a solicitation from a bank or another company that you do business with that would require them to reach out to you, to ask for your personal information, don’t respond to it.
You can always call your financial institutions and verify that they need this information. And the same thing goes for emails and text messages; phishing scams tell people that they’ve been locked out of their account, and are required to give their information to unlock it.
Also, like Donna said, scammers are going to prey on people using pressure tactics. They want you to act before you have time to really think about it. So again, there’s nothing that is too urgent to not be able to call your bank or other institutions to verify. It’s not a life-or-death situation. Take the time to make an informed decision, and be very, very cautious about releasing any type of personal preference to anyone you didn’t solicit.
On the topic of scams, in the past few years, services like Western Union and MoneyGram have caught on to the ways scammers used to use them to wire money from the U.S. to places like India or Nigeria, and those methods are almost unusable for them at this time. Scammers have resorted to another tactic, known as using “money mules,” U.S. citizens who can receive money from victims via the postal service. The “mules” then transfer the money to the overseas scammers by converting it into bitcoin, gift cards, and more, and keep a small portion of the stolen money for themselves. What is the USPS doing about this issue?
Donna Harris: We do a lot to address that. Last year, we started a three-year program with the Department of Justice, to interdict information, stop money mules, and prevent this money from going out of the country. The DOJ designed the Transnational Elder Fraud Strike Force, and it’s used to investigate and prosecute individuals and organizations engaged in foreign-based fraud schemes that disproportionately affect American seniors.
Part of their activities include investigating money mules, and you’ll find that a lot with the sweepstakes scams. Typically, the individual will be asked to send money; some of them know that they are being used as a money mules, but others don’t really know. They see a job advertisement, apply, and get hired; they don’t realize that it’s a scam. So there’s some who are complicit, and some who are not.
I’ve heard some of the money mules are victims of scams themselves; after being defrauded, they’re offered a “job” as a courier.
Donna Harris: That’s correct. Sometimes scammers will tell victims that if you want to get some of your money back, then you can help us by doing this. And of course, anyone would want some of their money back so at that point, they start participating in those types of scams. John, I know that you see this all the time. Care to share your insights?
John Del Giudice: I think Donna pretty much covered how we’re involved in those cases, and we do our best to help the victims recover the funds. In some cases, we are able to stop that money from being sent to the perpetrators, often after being told about the situation by a concerned child or caregiver.
When it comes to people falling for fake job opportunities, which in reality are money mules scams, it goes back to what we talked about just a few minutes ago; if it looks to good to be true, it is. We see a number of different permutations of this kind of scam, sometimes they’ll call it “reshipping,” but it all winds up the same; somebody’s paying you to receive packages, or to forward money. And they’ll promise $5,000 a week or some absurd amount of money for doing very little work.
What should residents do if they suspect that their mail is lost or has been stolen?
Donna Harris: If mail is simply lost, they should call the USPS, but if there’s a concern that mail was stolen, they should contact the Postal Inspection Service, at 877-876-2455. At the same time, you should also file a complaint with your local police department. In most cases, they would have told us and we will work collaboratively with them, but it’s always best to make sure both agencies are informed.
What closing remarks do you have for our readers?
John Del Giudice: I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to share our work with your readers. We want everybody to know that the Inspection Service has been around for almost 250 years; we have a long and proud history of getting the bad guys … we are the law enforcement branch of the Postal Service. We prioritize our investigations to protect our customers — who are the American public — from fraud and other criminal acts. We’re also concerned for our postal employees, who are out there every day, making sure that they’re safe, while they’re conducting their rounds, and delivering our customers’ mail. And in some places, it’s kind of rough; remember, we deliver to every address in the country. That includes good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods.
I want everyone to know that we’re out there. We have everybody’s safety and security in mind, and we’ll continue our mission as we have for the past two and a half centuries.
Donna Harris: One last thing I’d like to say is that if any of your readers believe they’ve been a victim of a crime connected to the U.S. mail, please report it. That’s how we develop training data, and how we find out where crimes are being perpetrated, so we can investigate. If we don’t know about it, we can’t investigate it. So it’s critically important that they let us know if they’ve been a victim of a crime so that we can stop it, we can work to make them whole, and prevent others from becoming victims. n
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