The U.S. Postal Service's Office of the Inspector General is investigating a series of thefts of money from mailed birthday cards that some victims believe may be an inside job.
The thefts have gone on for at least several months and are characterized by a tear in the envelope that is big enough for the thief's fingers to slip into and pull cash out of, while leaving the envelope intact.
Residents began airing their concerns in late June on the social media platform Nextdoor, but the problem was brought to the attention of the Palo Alto Post Office some months before by more than one victim, they stated online.
It is rare for postal employees to steal mail, but it does happen, said Janet Roberson, assistant special agent in charge from the Inspector General's office.
"At any given time, several mail-theft investigations are underway," she said, adding that current cases involve the Palo Alto area.
Roberson said that investigations continue until someone is indicted.
Cards that Palo Alto resident Karen Nierenberg sent in February were tampered with, she said. She sent the envelopes from her mailbox.
"I was quite stunned when my granddaughters in San Carlos and in Sunnyvale each received my valentines in the mail, but they had been ripped open. (I put) only stickers inside, not money, so the last laugh is on whoever opened them. But who does that?
"About a year ago, I sent dollar bills (foolish me) in a birthday card to my grandniece. I never got a thank you and was disappointed by that. Now it occurs to me that she never received it!" she said in an email.
A Charleston Gardens neighborhood resident wrote on Nextdoor that her son received two birthday cards mailed from two different states, both without the money that had been enclosed. The family's mail arrives to a locked box, prompting concern that a postal employee might have taken the money rather than a random thief.
The problem also appears to be occurring beyond Palo Alto. Other residents have reported on Nextdoor that birthday cards have been delivered minus money in Menlo Park and Mountain View.
Last year the Office of the Inspector General's mail-theft investigations resulted in 541 convictions, 1,220 administrative actions such as firings and $31.1 million in fines, restitution and recoveries, Roberson said.
"Given the size of the workforce -- more than 488,000 employees -- the integrity of postal employees is remarkable when you consider only 541 convictions occurred last year. We are continuously striving to reduce thefts. Many of the internal losses, which occur in the distribution chain before delivery, involve theft by airline ramp clerks, private delivery drivers, mailroom clerks working for banks, postal employees and postal contractors," she said.
Theft or possession of stolen mail is a very serious offense, she added. Mail theft is punishable by up to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000. Thefts by postal employees or officers carry the same penalties. In addition, there are statutes for obstruction, willful delay of mail and destruction of mail. Employees convicted of theft stand to lose their jobs, according to the Inspector General's office.
Information concerning postal crimes comes to the Inspector General's office through various sources. Special agents receive complaints and tips from customers and postal employees. They identify criminal activities in the early stages by analyzing mail flow and comparing employee work schedules and access to the mail, as well as by using emerging technology to determine where thefts are occurring in the mail stream.
The Postal Service has also strengthened its procedures for hiring new employees to include extensive background checks, fingerprinting, employment references and drug tests, the Inspector General's office noted in a fact sheet.
People can "absolutely" trust their mail carriers, the agency added. The majority of postal employees adhere to the tradition of protecting the "sanctity of the seal" of first-class mail.
Anyone who suspects their mail has been stolen or tampered with can contact the Office of the Inspector General hotline at 1-888-USPS-OIG (1-888-877-7644).
How to prevent mail theft
The U.S. Inspector General's Office recommends the following tips for avoiding mail theft:
1. Never send cash or coins in the mail. Use checks or money orders.
2. Safeguard financial information, especially Social Security numbers, account numbers and statements. Be careful when disposing of used credit-card receipts and pre-approved credit card solicitations.
3. Retrieve mail as soon as possible after delivery.
4. Make sure the lock on your mailbox works. Apartment boxes should be maintained by the property owner.
5. If you are expecting a check or credit card or package but are unable to be home for the delivery, have a trusted friend get the mail.
6. If you will be away from home for a long period, have the Post Office hold the mail.
7. Report any suspicious activity in the neighborhood to police or the Postal Inspection Service. Suspicious activity may be someone following the letter carrier, attempting to break into a postal vehicle, or tampering with mail.
8. If you failed to receive expected, valuable mail, report it immediately by calling banks, credit card issuers, and the Office of the Inspector General (see website at uspsoig.gov). Report lesser mail theft by completing a mail theft form at usps.com or by calling 800-275-8777.
9. Use letter slots at the Post Office to mail letters or give them to a letter carrier.
10. Keep your mailbox in good repair to help prevent theft of the mailbox itself.