Neighbors on repeated mailbox thefts: 'It's horrible, it's like an assault'

Damaged community mailboxes along Quail Creek Road in Bakersfield, Calif., are seen Wednesday, July 6, 2016. Residents complain of repeated mail thefts. (KBAK/KBFX phto)

Neighbors in a northwest Bakersfield area say they've been the targets of repeated thefts from their community mailboxes.

They're frustrated, saying they've tried to contact the U.S. Postal Service, but the break-ins keep happening. A Postal Service spokesman told Eyewitness News they are working to upgrade security.

But, neighbors with community boxes along Quail Creek Road say they are not convinced officials are doing what's necessary to protect their mail.

"It's horrible," Marcia Rodriguez told Eyewitness News on Wednesday. "It's like an assault every week, and you never know when it's going to be your mail that's going to be stolen."

The box she uses has been hit four times in the last eight months, Rodriguez said.

Neighbor Kenneth Teeters was a victim a few months ago.

"There was a check that they took and washed it and changed the name and took it to Walmart," he said. "And Walmart cashed it. I turned everything in to the sheriff's department and the postal people, and they've never done anything about it."

Teeters has heard there could even be a photo of the thief who cashed that check. Teeters said the Postal Service told him they would "follow up with it," but he's never heard back.

Eyewitness News has investigated viewers' complaints about mail thefts since late last year, and this neighborhood was one of the first we heard from. In that area, and others, neighbors report several different types of tampering.

At the box Rodriguez and Teeters use, they had one of the instances where the entire mail box was removed.

"They took the whole thing," Teeters described. "They took the whole thing, unscrewed it, and took the whole box."

Rodriguez said the cabinet and stand were removed where they had been bolted into the cement by the sidewalk.

"But, (authorities) brought it back, like a week later and put it back in the ground," she said.

Rodriguez said it was the same box that had been taken, and said her mailbox key still worked in it. She's never found out where authorities found it.

On Wednesday, Rodriguez pointed to a community mailbox a couple blocks away, and said the out-going mail slot was left unsecured. Eyewitness News found it, and saw that slot was unlocked. Neighbors think that means mail could have been stolen from it.

Down the block in the other direction, Rodriguez said a newer style box had been installed.

"The ones down the street supposedly are the newer and safer ones," she said. "But in fact, that one was broken into on Sunday night." Rodriguez said thieves had drilled a hole into the box.

Neighbors say they've contacted the Postal Service, and they're not satisfied with the response.

"In some cases they answer the phone, and in other cases they're just unresponsive," Rodriguez said. "You file a claim online, and you don't hear anything."

U.S. Postal Inspector Jeff Fitch told Eyewitness News by phone on Wednesday that work is underway. He said there are postal inspectors in the Bakersfield area working on these cases.

Fitch said if residents end up with credit card or bank information that's compromised because of a mail theft, it's important to report that to Postal Service investigators, because that is critical to their investigations.

He said they are working with local police and sheriff officers, and residents should also report to thefts to those authorities.

Kern County Sheriff's spokesman Ray Pruitt said officers are aware of the mail theft problems, and they will take a suspicious circumstances report and forward that to the Postal Service.

On Wednesday, a sheriff's deputy was checking in the area where residents have reported the mailbox problems.

In some cases, neighbors report the mailboxes have been left open. They think the thieves have a duplicate master key.

From the Postal Service, Jeff Fitch said possession of a counterfeit mailbox key is a federal offense, and conviction can mean a 10-year prison sentence.

He also said there's a $10,000 reward for information in mail theft cases. And he said reports can be called in at any time to 1-877-876-2455.

Fitch said inspectors are working to improve the mail safety.

"We are looking at upgrades on locks," he said, "and other security features."

Neighbors say they've also reached out to Rep. Kevin McCarthy, and Fitch said his office has been in contact with the Congressman.

Still for now, residents don't think their mail is safe, and Rodriguez said some are getting post office boxes.

"But yet, we've already paid for the Postal Service," she insists. "Why should we pay again to go get a private mail box." Some neighbors are renting boxes at private facilities, some say they're getting regular post office boxes. In both cases, neighbors say it can be a long drive out of their way just to pick up their mail.

Rodriguez said the neighbors will take action themselves. By the box she uses, they plan to put up a light on a neighbor's fence that will click on when it senses motion. They're also looking at getting a camera they can point at the community mail box.

Still, the residents want more action from the Postal Service.

"I want the postal system to take responsibility," Rodriguez said, "we need safer mail delivery."

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