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Postal inspector on local mailbox thefts: 'It really has become an unacceptable matter'

Community mailboxes, where previous mail theft has occurred, are seen in northwest Bakersfield, Calif., Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. (KBAK/KBFX photo/Carol Ferguson)

A U.S. Postal Service inspector said the number of mailbox thefts in the Bakersfield area has shot up since late last year.

He said a two-prong effort is underway to deal with this but admitted it's currently a serious problem.

"It really has become an unacceptable matter," Postal Inspector Brian Shaughnessy told Eyewitness News on Monday.

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He's been recently assigned to this part of the Central Valley. Shaughnessy said the focus of postal inspectors is on catching the suspects.

"Our job is really, as the law enforcement arm of the Postal Service, is to go after the individuals who are committing these crimes, and that's what we're doing," Shaughnessy said.

But, he said it will take more.

"It's going to be very difficult for us to arrest our way out of this, so we're trying to enhance the security measures with some of these collection box units to make them more difficult targets for these criminals out there," he adds.

But, Shaughnessy said the Post Office is dealing with the boxes, and he can't give out details on exactly what's being done to improve them.

"They are considered law-enforcement sensitive, so we generally don't discuss them with the public," he said. "But, it is something that we're constantly working on every single day, including weekends."

That lack of information has frustrated a lot of victims of mail theft. Eyewitness News started getting complaints about this last year. Shaughnessy said that's when the Post Office started getting a lot more calls, too.

Viewers have reported some "community" mailboxes left wide open. Some looked like they were pried open, and some showed no sign of tampering, which led viewers to speculate the criminals had a master key of some sort.

Shaughnessy said having a key is actually a more serious crime than basic mail theft.

"Possession of a stolen or counterfeit Postal Service key is also a very serious offense, it's punishable in Federal Court by up to 10 years imprisonment," he said. In Federal court, other mail theft crimes can result in five-year sentences, he said.

Another complaint by victims is that sometimes a suspect is taken through the local court system and not Federal court.

"We do wish that every one of our mail theft , or identity theft cases, could be accepted for federal prosecution," Shaughnessy said. "Unfortunately, it's just not feasible."

He said that mail theft is mostly a West Coast problem. Shaughnessy said the inspectors believe the suspects here are often drug users trying to find things they can sell or trade for money to get drugs, particularly methamphetamine.

Postal Inspectors want any information the public can provide. The 24-hour, toll-free number is (877) 876-2455.

As for how soon the mailbox improvements will be done, Shaughnessy suggested customers could call their Post Office to see about their specific location, he could not provide a timeline for when the "enhanced security" would be complete.

And, the postal inspector said he sympathizes with customers who worry about their mail, and who have been victims of repeated thefts.

"We certainly understand and we're working as hard as we can to bring the individuals to justice who are committing these crimes," Shaughnessy said. "We're very confident that we're going to prevail, and that this situation is not going to continue indefinitely."

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