The Harford County Sheriff’s Office is warning residents to be careful about what they put in their outgoing mail with incidents of mail being stolen from mailboxes on the rise, according to Capt. Tracy Penman.
“It’s been happening all over the county, northern and southern portions,” Penman said.
Investigators believe the thefts are part of at least one, possibly more, organized networks, including one called the Red Flag Bandits, she said.
“They go through neighborhoods, looking for mailboxes that have the red flags up, which says mail is in there for pickup,” Penman said. “They’re taking the mail, and if there’s a check, they’re washing the check and making it out to different people, for higher monetary amounts.”
In some cases, the thieves will erase numbers and write new ones, or simply add a number where there’s room, Penman said. The more sophisticated thieves will reprint the check.
Then they get someone — often homeless people who have identification — to cash it, she said.
“What they’re hoping is a homeless person has a heroin addiction or substance abuse problem. They’re easy targets to pay $50 to go cash a check,” Maj. Donald Gividen of the Sheriff’s Office said. “It’s risk versus reward.”
It’s not likely the homeless person would be recognized by bank surveillance video, and even less likely, because of a homeless person’s transient nature, he or she will be tracked down easily, Gividen said.
“So they target them to cash checks,” he said.
Penman likened the thieves to the “felony lane” gang, members of which broke into people’s cars to steal purses and wallets, then used the victims' checks or bank debit cards to get cash, either from ATMs or by cashing the checks at bank drive-in facilities.
Police in several states dubbed the bank drive-in lane farthest away from the window “felony lane," as the one where the gang members drive through to cash stolen checks.
In the last six months, 19 cases of mail theft have been reported to the Harford Sheriff’s Office, including five so far this year, Cristie Hopkins, director of media relations, said.
“It is not specific to Harford County. Other jurisdictions around the state are seeing similar crimes,” Hopkins said. “No one is immune.”
While it’s easier to steal mail from independent mailboxes in single-family home communities, clustered and locked mailboxes are not immune, Gividen said.
The Sheriff’s Office has been working with the U.S. Postal Service on some of the theft investigations, Penman said.
Penman strongly recommends not putting any outgoing mail in a mailbox. Instead, take it to the post office or a locked mailbox. For people who choose to put it in their box, she suggested they don’t put up the red flag.
“Put it in the mailbox, the mail person doesn’t need the red flag up, they’ll see the mail inside and they’ll take it,” she said.
She also said to put the outgoing mail in the box shortly before the day’s delivery.
“Don’t put it in the night before,” Penman said.
Anyone who sees someone looking in or messing around with mailboxes is asked to call the Sheriff’s Office.
“Give us a call because we need to investigate these things,” Penman said.