Kern County is hot spot for mail theft

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) Extra U.S. Postal Service inspectors are now working in the Kern County area, trying to stop a sudden spike in mail theft. Thursday a postal inspector confirmed they're investigating a rash of thefts.

"The number of complaints coming in from the Central Valley area of California is unusually high," Postal Inspector Roberta Bottoms told Eyewitness News. "It's one of the highest areas in the country right now."

Eyewitness News heard from viewers who say their mail was taken right out of the box inside a post office lobby. The inspector confirmed that, too.

"We're dealing with a group of individuals that are targeting various locations, and that are committing what we call 'volume attacks.'"Bottoms explained. Those are locations where there are larger concentrations of mail.

"These thieves appear to be hitting collection boxes and post office box drops," Bottoms said. Those drop boxes are in post office lobbies, often near customers' post office boxes.

That's what viewers in Arvin have heard after the money orders they mailed off disappeared. "It appears the thieves are targeting checks and money orders," Bottoms said.

At a market in Arvin, a clerk told Eyewitness News customers have complained for about a month that their money orders aren't making it to their intended recipients.

The clerk said "plenty" of customers have returned, asked for Western Union forms to track their money orders, but eventually believed the funds had been stolen.

Bottoms said the groups taking the mail seem pretty organized.

"There are often groups that steal the mail, they pass it off to somebody who then makes fake ID's," Bottoms said. "And then another group, who will negotiate the checks and obtain the cash."

The postal inspector will not say if any arrests have been made yet. She also won't detail exactly how the thieves get the mail out of the boxes, but some law enforcement officers described that to Eyewitness News as "fishing" it out.

As to why Kern County is a hot spot, Bottoms said it may be the proximity between Los Angeles and San Francisco. She also said communities right off interstate highways seem more vulnerable.

And, the inspector stresses that mail theft and possession of stolen mail are federal felonies. She said someone convicted of the crimes can face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Bottoms also said there's a standing $10,000 reward from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service for information leading to the capture and conviction of a mail theft suspect.

Anyone who is a victim of mail theft is urged to report the crime to local police or sheriff's department and also the Postal Inspection Service. Both will investigate.

Postal customers are also encouraged to take precautions on their own to protect their mail. Bottoms said it's safer to personally hand over mail to a postal clerk in a post office, you have to do that when the post office is open.

And for dropping mail in a blue collection box, her recommendation is to check the pick-up schedule posted on the front. Don't put mail in the box after the last pick-up of the day. You don't want to leave mail in a box any longer than necessary.

Bottoms said the Post Office is working to catch the crooks and prevent the crime.

"Because of the high number of mail theft complaints that we've received in this area, we've installed new security devices on many of the boxes," the inspector said. She won't say exactly what that is, but she has a message for local postal patrons.

"Customers should know that postal inspectors are working every day to ensure the safety and security of their mail," Bottoms said.