Feds target mail thieves in Bakersfield, Central Valley

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) A surge in thefts from mailboxes across the Central Valley last year victimized more than 2,100 people and sparked a federal crackdown that has led to charges against at least 27 people, authorities said Wednesday.

"From a postal point of this, this was pretty significant," Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Delaney told Eyewitness News in Bakersfield. "That's what drew inspectors to get some additional resources to come in here and combat this situation."

Eyewitness News started investigating mail theft last April after getting calls to the tip-line. Federal investigators say that's when they launched their probe, and called in more inspectors from other areas.

Postal investigators and local law enforcement officers targeted rings that were responsible for bulk mail thefts, particularly in the Sacramento, Fresno and Bakersfield areas, U.S. Attorney Ben Wagner said.

The thieves pried open boxes inside post office lobbies and multiple-slot postal lock boxes in many neighborhoods. They also broke into postal delivery trucks, in part so they could counterfeit postal-box keys.

They were after checks, credit cards, personal identifying information and prescription drugs delivered by mail. Losses topped $400,000.

"They'd get your personal identification, they'd apply for credit cards in your name, and they'd ruin your credit score," Delaney said about the crooks. "They'd steal and just commit havoc."

The Postal Service brought in more inspectors to work in the Central Valley, and they used more techniques to combat the fairly sophisticated gangs of thieves.

"We have general analysts working with the inspection service, who are going through all this individually," Postal Inspector Jeff Fitch explained. "Combing through the complaints, linking it up -- so if we see a neighborhood being hit, we know we can start targeting that for enforcement."

Asked how they tracked down the suspects, Fitch said it was using the basics.

"Investigative techniques, working with our partners in law enforcement, and just good, old-fashioned police work," Fitch said.

Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Williamson agreed team work helped catch the suspects and stop the crimes.

"Without programs like this, 2,100 victims could easily turn into 21,000 victims, if a stop's not put to it," the chief said.

Residents in Arvin worried their mail was being stolen from the "drop box" actually inside the post office lobby. Postal Inspector Fitch said in light of that, officials are "looking at security issues inside" the post office and using investigative techniques.

Fitch and Delaney spoke at a news conference Wednesday in Bakersfield.

The officials said in Bakersfield inspectors identified a "collection box fishing group," and the later searches turned up a large volume of stolen mail and "several stolen postal keys."

Six people have been charged in Kern and Sacramento counties, while 21 others face federal charges. More charges are expected as the investigation continues, Wagner said during a news conference at the federal courthouse in Sacramento.

Mail theft happens nationwide and can victimize anyone, but the Central Valley seemed particularly vulnerable because of the widespread use of stand-alone neighborhood delivery boxes, Wagner said. He said those types of postal boxes are "tempting targets if you're a mail thief."

He also cited the region's long-time problems with the use of methamphetamine and other drugs. Addicts resort to stealing to fuel their habits.

"Where there's meth, there's mail (theft), and there is a correlation between those who are on substance abuse and going out to do things to accommodate their habit. And it just so happens that mail theft is one of those things," said Gregory Campbell Jr., deputy chief postal inspector for Western Field Operations, a region that includes California's Central Valley.

Copycat rings also popped up once criminals learned that the mail was easy to steal from the relatively lightweight lock boxes, which can be pried open with a large screwdriver or crowbar.

The U.S. Postal Service delivers more than 150 million pieces of mail each day, Campbell said.

Last year, 16.6 million people, or 7 percent of all American adults, were victims of identity theft. But he said U.S. Department of Justice statistics show people are 2.5 times more likely to be victimized by a friend or family member and 22 times more likely to be victimized through a routine financial transaction than they are through mail theft.

While mail deliveries generally are safe, Campbell suggested that residents collect their mail as quickly as possible after it is delivered, check credit reports annually, create neighborhood watch groups and notify postal authorities if mail theft becomes a problem.

Where there are problems, the Postal Service can install more secure, but costly, neighborhood collection boxes or take other steps, including video surveillance, Campbell said.

In Bakersfield, Postal Inspector Jeff Fitch stressed it's important to report mail theft immediately. He said inspectors can be reached round the clock at (877) 876-2455.

Officials said five suspects had been arrested in the Bakersfield area. Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Delaney said two had been convicted after pleading guilty, and the other three are still in the judicial process.

A spokeswoman said three of those suspects are from the Los Angeles area, and the other two are from Kern County.

Delaney said there's still an on-going investigation in Bakersfield, but he's confident "Operation Broken Mailbox" had made a serious dent in this crime.

"It's a serious problem," Delaney said. "I think we've met it head on, and I think we've made good progress in this area."