(CNSNews.com) - The U.S. Postal Service is taking a broader look at mail theft, which is "becoming a bigger and bigger problem," a witness told a House Oversight subcommittee on Wednesday.
Tammy Whitcomb Hull, inspector general of the Postal Service, said investigations into mail theft take time because the cases can be "complicated."
"We've seen situations where groups of organized criminals are working together to recruit postal employees to steal from the mail and other things. So it's -- it's a big -- it's become a bigger and bigger deal. And these cases have become much more complex than they used to -- used to be.
"So mail theft cases have always been a big part of our inventory of casework. The cases that we're working now, though, are much more complicated than -- than they used to be and involve a lot of external activity, not just postal employees."
Several lawmakers on the committee talked about mail theft in their districts.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) told Hull, "More than three years ago, stolen checks and incidents of mail fraud were reported in Teaneck, New Jersey where I represent. Many victims who are constituents of mine have had checks altered after dropping them off at the post office...Initially these reports were referred to the local police and then to the postal inspector...Three years later, unfortunately, my constituents and I are still dealing with these issues."
(Hull told Gottheimer, "We are currently working that aggressively, and sometimes these investigations take more time than we would like.")
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton voiced the same concern: "I am deeply concerned about the increase in mail theft that we have seen in my district, the District of Columbia, and other areas across the country as well," she said. "I've been contacted by constituents who have had their mail checks stolen and altered and thousands of dollars taken from their accounts."
Norton asked the witnesses, "What measures is the Postal Service taking to reduce mail theft?"
None of them responded to her question, except to note that Norton had recently met with Chief Postal Inspector Gary Barksdale, who would have given her a better answer than they could.
In her opening statement to the committee, Hull said:
"We have also begun recent work to address concerns about mail theft, specifically focused on checks, credit cards and other sensitive documents. One reason for increased theft has been the Postal Service's poor management controls over arrow keys, the keys that are used by carriers to open collection boxes, parcel lockers and cluster box units.
"In response to this concern, we increased focus on Arrow Key Management during our facility visits and have recently started an audit on how the Postal Service is responding to mail theft. We have also increased our investigative work on this critical topic."
The Postal Service uses a universal key, known as an arrow key, to access collection boxes, outdoor parcel lockers, cluster box units, and apartment panels. Supervisors assign these keys -– generally one per route -– to letter carriers for use on over 300,000 delivery and collection routes each day. Carriers and collectors must always keep arrow keys secured and attached to their belts or clothing by a chain while on duty and return them at the end of each day.
Employees must report missing, lost, or stolen keys to the Postal Inspection Service immediately.
But a 2020 inspector-general investigation found that the Postal Service’s management controls over arrow keys were ineffective.
"Specifically, the number of arrow keys in circulation is unknown, and local units did not adequately report lost, stolen, or broken keys or maintain key inventories. Further, the Postal Service did not restrict the number of replacement arrow keys that could be ordered. Ineffective controls over arrow keys increases the risk that these items will be lost or stolen and not detected."