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Detective: Thieves use robbed Norwood postal worker's key to steal $200k in checks from mailboxes

Victim: 'You feel violated'
Many not confident ballot will be counted accurately if they vote by mail, polls shows
Posted at 3:57 PM, Mar 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-31 20:47:27-04

CINCINNATI — Norwood postal worker Ryan Pierani said he was eating lunch in his marked post office delivery vehicle Jan. 19 when a masked man wearing a hoodie pointed a gun at his head and demanded Pierani's master mailbox key.

Hamilton County Sheriff's Office detectives believe thieves are using Pierani's stolen post office key to unlock large blue mailboxes around the county and steal mail.

"We are currently investigating over 40 cases throughout the county of mail theft from these mailboxes," Det. Ryan Burke said in a video posted Tuesday on the Sheriff's Office's Facebook page. "At this time, our victims are at a loss of over $200,000."

Burke and Sheriff Charmaine McGuffey urged people to go inside post offices to mail checks, gift cards and other potentially valuable items.

"Try to avoid all blue mailboxes inside Hamilton County," Burke warned.

The WCPO 9 I-Team has spent weeks investigating local mail theft, how thieves are getting easy access to the mail, and what you can do to protect yourself from becoming a victim.

A May 2021 report by the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Postal Service reported that complaints about mail theft increased 161% from March 2020 through February 2021.

In some cases, a huge increase of reported mail thefts follows the robbery of a postal worker's mailbox key.

In addition to Norwood, postal workers have been robbed at gunpoint in Columbus, Cleveland and many other cities across the country, according to news reports.

A May 2021 report by the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Postal Service reported that complaints about mail theft increased 161% from March 2020 through February 2021.

"We found out in January that a local check we had written never arrived," Hamilton County resident Ann Altman said.

Mrs. Altman said she put the $100 check in an outdoor blue mailbox in Hyde Park and assumed it would arrive safely.

"We saw on our account that it had been written to someone we'd never heard of and the amount changed from say $100 to $11,000," she said. "Immediately, we knew something was wrong."

For decades, thieves have used easily accessible chemicals to 'wash' ink off checks without damaging the checks. With the handwritten ink erased, criminals write in higher dollar amounts on the same checks and make them out to themselves or others involved in their crimes.

Mrs. Altman said she alerted her bank, Stockyards Bank, which covered her loss. She said she closed her checking account and opened a new one.

You can report stolen mail by using this link to the United States Postal Inspection Service, the primary law enforcement agency for investigating mail fraud and mail theft.

The 'underground market' for stolen personal checks

Cybersecurity experts say there's a fast-growing online underground market for stolen checks.

"It looks like it's a very big problem at this point," Evidence Based Cybersecurity Research Group Director David Maimon said.

The cybersecurity group is based at Georgia State University where Maimon is an associate professor in the department of criminal justice and criminology.

Maimon said the cybersecurity group monitors about 60 online networks where criminals buy and sell items that include post office mailbox keys and personal checks that he believes were stolen from mailboxes.

"On a typical platform you can find between 20-30,000 people being active on them," Maimon said.

Maimon said when the cybersecurity group started monitoring these 60 networks two years ago, researchers found an average of 114 checks for sale each week.

Now, he said, they see a weekly average of 2,000 checks for sale on the same 60 underground networks.

And, Maimon added, there are thousands of additional networks the cybersecurity group doesn't monitor.

"It's simply very difficult for law enforcement to wrap their head around this issue because there's so much of it," Maimon said.

Investigating mail theft

According to the May 2021 Inspector General report, from March 2020 through February 2021 there were 299,020 mail theft complaints filed with the Postal Inspection Service, the primary law enforcement investigators of mail theft.

The IG report said that was a 161% increase in complaints compared to the same period in the previous year.

But despite the huge increase in theft complaints, postal inspectors investigated 49 fewer complaints — about 4% less — than the previous year, according to the IG report.

The IG report didn't criticize the Postal Inspection Service for opening fewer mail theft cases.

"Overall, we found that the Postal Inspection Service took appropriate action to respond to mail fraud and mail theft during the COVID-19 pandemic," according to the IG report.

"The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is committed to protecting Postal Service employees and customers and preserving the integrity of the U.S. Mail," the U.S. Postal Inspections Service said in a written statement emailed to the I-Team.

The USPIS statement added that the agency "will continue to aggressively pursue perpetrators that use the U.S. Mail system to further their illegal activity."

The I-Team requested post office records concerning mail theft and robberies of postal workers, but we have not received those records or answers to additional questions we emailed to the Postal Service and Postal Inspection Service.

"165 armed robberies of letter carriers since October," Postal Police Officer Association President Frank Albergo said. "It's out of control."

Albergo said the Postal Service has slashed the number of postal police officers (PPOs) in recent years.

Cincinnati is one of many large cities that no longer has PPOs based there, according to Albergo.

In August 2020, the Postal Service limited PPOs authority to "Postal Service premises," according to a civil lawsuit the PPOA filed a month later against the Postal Service.

"Because of this abrupt policy change, in many places, the U.S. mail and postal personnel are receiving less protection," according to the PPOA complaint.

But in a sworn statement to the court, Daniel Brubaker, an Inspector in Charge of the USPIS Security Group, wrote that the policy change followed years of research and discussions about the legal authority of PPOs.

Brubaker wrote that the policy doesn't prevent PPOs from providing security and escorts off Postal Service property.

In November 2020, U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper ruled that the Postal Service had the authority to make the policy changes. Cooper dismissed the lawsuit.

Although USPIS is the primary mail theft investigative agency, police in the Cincinnati area have filed charges against people accused of trying to cash checks that were allegedly stolen from the mail.

In one case, Madeira police charged three individuals with theft and forgery.

The Madeira Police Department also issued a public warning about the risks of putting checks in outside mailboxes.

Ann Altman said she's also stopped using outside mail boxes to mail checks, gift cards and other smaller potentially valuable items.

Now, she goes inside the post office and is trying to pay more bills online.

"We're much more cautious," she said.

The Postal Service encourages customers to mail checks, gift cards and other small valuable items from inside a post office.

If that's not possible, try to put them in a public mailbox as close as possible to when postal workers collect the mail.

The collection times are on the mailboxes.