Mail thieves suspected in missing deliveries
on December 24, 2008
story and video by MARTIN RICARD
One week last August, Carlos Martinez, a civil engineer who lives in the Temescal district, was expecting a special envelope in the mail.
It was his 37th birthday, and his sister from Dallas had told him she was sending him a gift card. She said she was going to send it through the postal service, as most people do. Only the gift card never arrived.
That wouldn’t have bothered Martinez’ wife, Joanna Wulbert, as much if it were the first time a piece of mail went missing en route to their mailbox. But it wasn’t. Over the past year, Joanna Wulbert has had several items turn up missing—from movie rentals to utility bills—on their way either to her mailbox or to her local post office, the North Oakland station on Shattuck Avenue.
She isn’t quite sure if they have been victims of mail theft. But she has noticed a pattern and has become sure of one thing: It’s annoying.
“I felt basically kind of frustrated,” she said, reflecting on the experience recently, “and not much of anything else.”
It is no secret that with more than 700 million pieces of mail circulating throughout the country every day, a few items are bound to fall through the cracks, especially during the holidays when the delivery of mail goes into overdrive. But in Wulbert’s case, numerous items have suspiciously vanished without a trace, which makes her a strong candidate for stolen mail.
Wulbert is not alone in her situation. While her case hasn’t been formally linked to any criminal case, mail theft is a national problem. According to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s latest semiannual report, 1,293 criminal cases were filed nationwide for mail theft, delay or destruction in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. And it wasn’t just jewelry and other expensive items being stolen. DVDs, CDs, gift cards, items from QVC and the Home Shopping Network, and mail-order prescriptions were also common targets.
Sometimes, the mail thieves turn out to be postal workers. More than 300 of the criminal cases listed in that Postal Inspection Report were filed against people who worked for the Postal Service. In May, a Los Angeles post office supervisor pleaded guilty to theft of mail involving 4,500 missing DVDs. In June, a North Dakota carrier was arrested in connection with stealing more than 36,500 pieces of mail.
Wulbert, 37, a training program developer who works from home, first started noticing that something was wrong when, back in January, she tried to send one of her Netflix movies back to the company in the mail.
An amateur movie buff, Wulbert had just finished watching Superbad. As she had always done, she then clipped the red envelope that comes with the DVD onto the flap of her mail slot, which is next to her door tucked away in the shadows of her porch.
A few days had passed, and a notice arrived in the mail from the company. Only it wasn’t another DVD, as is standard procedure with Netflix. The company said it never received the last DVD she sent, Wulbert said.
It had been at least the fourth time a movie rental went missing on its way back to the company, so Wulbert contacted her post office to complain. She knew that type of theft was not common in her neighborhood, which is within walking distance of Shattuck, but sheltered from the street’s hustle and bustle. No one else had experienced the same problem.
And she was confident that she had followed the Netflix instructions, “so that’s why I knew it wasn’t just somebody messing with mail in my mailbox,” she said.
After she made the complaint, Wulbert said, she had no more problems with Netflix movies making it back to the company.
But last month, for her birthday, it was almost déjà vu all over again when she received a card in the mail from her mother, with the envelope pried open. Luckily, she said, her mother had mailed the gift card she was planning to send inside that envelope in another one.
Rhonda Aubrey-Otis, the North Oakland station manager, said she hasn’t heard of Wulbert’s situation and doesn’t believe her carriers could be involved in mail theft because there are at least five different carriers on that route—all of whom, she said, follow the rules.
But she has received complaints in the past from customers whose mail went missing.
In those cases, Aubrey-Otis said, the customers would leave their mail outside their homes and authorize a carrier to pick up the items, similarly to what Wulbert would do. Turns out, the station manager said, someone had been casing the homes where the carriers frequently picked up mail, and several items had been stolen.
Aubrey-Otis’ solutions for preventing mail theft are to get a locked mailbox, place a vacation hold on mail if going out of town, deposit all mail at the post office or at a blue mailbox before the last pickup, or just don’t leave packages out in the open—even if in front of a house.
“Just like us, criminals are out there working overtime and thinking how they can get over any way they can,” she said. “We see it all the time. So we just have to keep our eyes open.
As for Wulbert, who still remains a little cautious after her string of episodes, she isn’t blaming anyone. But she is making a promise. For this holiday season, she won’t be taking any more chances.
“The main thing that we advise people now,” she said, “is that if you’re going to send any type of gift card, money or checks—unless you’re going to use FedEx or UPS—don’t send it via the mail.”
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