BAY RIDGE — The simple act of mailing a check to his nephew wound up costing Raymond Aalbue of Bay Ridge $9,000. He became the victim of what is known as mailbox “fishing,” where thieves steal checks, money, and credit cards from mailboxes.
“The thieves took the check that I had had, and they ‘washed’ it. They changed the name on it. And they changed the amount. My signature was on it, and the date was the same,” Aalbue explained.
“They didn’t change the date. They just changed the person who was supposed to get the check and the amount. And they cashed it. There was nothing I could do about it.”
U.S. Postal Service officials are warning postal patrons about this scheme. Crooks in search of mail attach a rodent or insect glue trap to a string, lower it into a mailbox slot, and “fish” out envelopes.
In some cases, thieves apply a sticky substance to the mailbox slot that sticks to an envelope the unsuspecting victim has mailed, making it even easier to make contact with — and “fish” out — already sticky pieces of mail.
Then, thieves who snag checks use a chemical substance to erase the name of the intended recipient and replace it with a name of their choosing. Not only that, officials say, as in Aalbue’s case, they sometimes alter the amount on the check to their benefit.
The bad guys then cash the check and/or use other information on it to wreak more havoc on the check writer — like using the account number on the check to gain access to a victim’s other bank accounts.
By the time a victimized check writer is made aware of the theft, thieves have already laughed all the way to the bank.
Aalbue noted that the thieves used information from his check to gain access to his savings account and transferred money from that account to his checking account. They then issued checks in his name.
The next few months were like navigating a maze for Aalbue, who had to file reports with the Postal Service, the NYPD, and his bank and deal with endless phone calls, emails, and requests for additional information.
He recalled a conversation he had with a detective at the 68th Precinct in Bay Ridge. “He called me and explained that I wasn’t alone, that it happened to a lot of other people,” Aalbue said.
He finally got his money back, but as a result of the incident, Aalbue now does nearly all of his financial transactions online.
It’s not clear how many mailbox fishing incidents have taken place. The Postal Service did not offer details. “In order to maintain the integrity of our statistics, any specific numbers must be obtained through the FOIA process,” the Postal Service said in a statement, referring to the Freedom of Information Act.
But the Postal Service takes the incidents seriously, said Daniela Fernandez, a postal inspector for the New York Division. “Postal inspectors investigate several crimes related to the mail, in this case, related to mail theft, and arrest thousands of mail and package thieves each year,” she told The Tablet in an email.
Congresswoman Nicole Malliotakis’ office said that at least 14 incidents in her Southwest Brooklyn-Staten Island district have been reported to her office between 2022 and this year. Her office added that there are likely more than the 14 incidents reported to the lawmaker’s office.
Malliotakis said the thieves prey on the most vulnerable people, “our seniors, single parents, small-business owners, and individuals on fixed incomes.” She said her office has been successful in helping some constituents get their money back.
In January, New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, and the Postal Service postal inspector announced the arrest of Gennady Galker, a suspected identity thief who allegedly stole more than $30,000 in checks from Brooklyn residents and nonprofit groups, including the Office of Unclaimed Funds and the Jewish Communal Fund.
Malliotakis, a Republican, and Congresswoman Grace Meng of Queens, a Democrat, are sponsoring a bipartisan bill aimed at helping the Postal Service combat mail fishing and other forms of mail theft.
Their bill, the USPS Subpoena Authority Act, would strengthen the Postal Service’s ability to crack down on criminal organizations driving mail theft through administrative subpoenas.
The bill would enable the Postal Service to better build mail theft cases that meet prosecutorial thresholds, Malliotakis and Meng said.
Meng said it was time for Congress to act.
“From stolen checks to other financial fraud,” she said, “I have heard from many constituents who have been victims of despicable mail crimes that have resulted in them losing their hard-earned money and increasing their chances of identity theft, bad credit ratings, and other negative impacts.”