Clayton Police Department received the first report at the end of January. Five weeks later, around 40 more individuals and businesses had reported incidents of mail fraud.
“Since the beginning of the year, we have had a number of reports of residents or busi- ness associates in our area mailing checks and later finding out that they had been intercepted somewhere and altered,” said Jenny Schwartz, the Community Services Corporal and Public Information Officer with the Clayton Police De- partment.
The increasing number of checks stolen from USPS drop boxes is not limited to Clayton, and reports have been filed in other St. Louis County municipalities including Brentwood and Uni- versity City.
The Globe spoke to one Clayton resident who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of information she shared. Around two months ago, she received a letter from her homeowners insurance company in- forming her that her regular payment had not gone through. She learned that a check from her had been cleared to a name she didn’t recognize.
The resident, who uses Bank of America, closedher account and checked for any other fraudu-lent payments, finding an illegal wire transfer accepted using her routing and account number. She filed a report with the Clayton P olice Department, who passed it onto the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. She expressed frustration concerning her interactions with the police. “Victims are the last to know,” said the resident, who was defrauded $20,000 in total and has not yet gotten the money back. “Victims are tangential,” she said.
Another anonymous Clayton resident, a customer of Commerce Bank, was defrauded $5000. He uses a small checking account, sepa-rate from his main account, to send two checks a month for his son’s rent. One of those two checks was intercepted and likely photocopied to produce two more copies. The resident has a friend who works for his bank, so he was able to get fast tracked on the forensics process.
Since these cases involve mail fraud, Clayton Police Department has acted as the initial party when reports are filed and then passed on the investigations to the Postal Inspection Service. However, not everyone files a police report.
“Who knows how many more people are out there that this has happened to and they’ve just handled it through their financial institution and haven’t reported it to us as well?” said Cpl. Schwartz.
It’s unclear how these checks are being intercepted. One possibility is that the keys to USPS drop boxes are being stolen or bought from mail carriers.
CPD’s weekly incident report from March 21-27 detailed an incident that may support this explanation for the stolen checks. A CPD officer was stopped by amail carrier who re- ported that on Tuesday of that week, a red Ca- maro approached him and the passenger asked to purchase his postal keys. The mail carrier mentioned that one of his coworkers had a similar experience, and the police tracked this second carrier down. She explained that she was stopped at a red light when the passenger of a red Dodge Charger asked to purchase her keys.
“A potential suspect has been identified & of- ficers continue to investigate,” said the CPD in their incident report.
That same week, officers observed a subject outside the Clayton post office facing the access doors of the mailboxes. When the officers en- tered the parking lot, the subject got into their car and sped away.
Another possibility is that these checks are being stolen using plastic bags inside the drop boxes that collect mail as it is deposited. How- ever, the second resident interviewed report- ed hearing his check hit the bottom of the box when he mailed it.
As CPD and the Postal Inspection Service continue to investigate what’s behind these sto- len checks, they’re warning the Clayton commu- nity to be extra cautious.
“The postal inspectors are cautioning resi- dents that if they have outgoing mail, they should consider taking it directly to the post office and handing it off to a clerk rather than putting it in a standalone mailbox,” said Cpl. Schwartz.
Although checks are becoming less widely used in the digital financial s ystem, e ven o ne intercepted check can mean a major finan- cial loss of tens of thousands of dollars. Until the investigation is successful, CPD will like- ly continue to process more reports of fraud by increasingly frustrated Clayton residents.