Your Risky Mailbox: Identity Theft 101

Your Identity’s In the Mail

The U.S. Postal Service handles more than 207 billion pieces of mail each month. That's 207 billion opportunities for identity thieves to obtain information that can be used to steal people's identities. And those criminals take advantage of as many of those opportunities as they can.

In fact, your mailbox is the riskiest non-technological point for identity theft, according to a study released in October 2007. The study, an assessment of closed U.S. Secret Service cases between 2000 and 2006 which had components of identity theft and identity fraud, showed the top two methods of non-technological identity theft were re-routing of mail and mail theft. In other words, your mailbox is a serious threat to your identity.

Where'd My Mail Go?

Re-routing of mail topped the list of non-technology threats for identity theft. The re-routing is usually accomplished by Change of Address. Placing a change of address with the U.S. Postal Service is as easy as filling out a form online or mailing in a card that can be picked up at the post office.

Identity thieves collect addresses. They may drive by your residence, go through the phone book, or collect trash that contains your address. Then requesting a change of address takes just a matter of minutes.

Most post offices make the change of address cards available in easy-access displays in customer service areas. And the electronic change of address can be found on the U.S. Postal Service Website. With the electronic method, however, there is a verification procedure required.

The verification process is simple enough, but also tends to make criminals use other methods to change your address. When using the online form, a valid credit card with a billing address that matches the old address must be used for verification. Not a problem if the thief already has access to your credit card account numbers, but otherwise it presents a bit of a tripping point.

Watch Your Mailbox

The two crimes – fraudulently changing addresses and stealing mail – look different from the victim’s point of view. But if you’re paying attention to your mail delivery, both should be easy to spot.

If a criminal fraudulently changes your mailing address, it’s going to be obvious within a few days. A change of address stops mail from being delivered to one location and re-routes it to another location. The first thing you notice is that suddenly you’re not getting any mail at all.

You probably won’t notice it for the first day or two. No mail usually means no bills and no junk, so on those rare days when we don’t receive anything, most of us just accept it as a blessing and move on. If you notice that you’re not getting mail for several days in a row, however, you should be suspicious of a deeper problem.

Exceptions do exist. A few people still have time periods, sometimes days, when they don’t receive any mail at all. If this is you, monitor those time periods so you’ll know what’s normal and what’s not. When you get past a normal length of time without mail, then it’s time to worry.

The issue is a little less obvious when someone is stealing your mail. Mail theft can take place one time or over a period of time. Some criminals steal mail because the opportunity presents itself.

Other criminals target individuals and even businesses and then steal mail over time. They grab a piece here and there – both incoming and outgoing – until they have all the information they need. Still, others create elaborate schemes to steal mail from multiple people over time.

One example of a mail theft scheme was a 2002 case where criminals used stolen Postal uniforms to impersonate mail carriers. Instead of leaving mail for residents, however, the counterfeit carriers were picking mail out of delivery boxes. Eventually, a Postal customer realized she had seen mail delivery twice in one day and reported the incident.

The real issue with mail theft of this type, however, is that you don’t know what mail you’re getting before it arrives (in most cases) so you have no idea what’s missing. That makes it vitally important that you pay attention to your mail delivery schedule, get to know your mail carrier, and even consider not using the mailbox at the street for mail transactions.

Protecting Your Mail and Your Identity

Since your mailbox is your greatest point of threat in the real world, knowing how to protect your mail is your first line of defense. It starts with being attentive. Know your mail carrier, know his schedule, and know normal delivery patterns for the mail that you receive.

In addition, put some safe mail handling practices in place:

  • Don’t leave mail in your box. Incoming or outgoing mail should never sit in your mailbox for an extended amount of time. For example, when you mail bills out, don’t place them in the mailbox as you leave for work in the morning. Instead, drop them at the Post Office. Also, don’t leave mail sitting in your box after delivery.
  • Use a locking mailbox when possible. If you must leave mail sitting in your box, consider investing in a locking mailbox. These boxes allow Postal carriers to place mail in the box, but only a person with a key can remove it.
  • Rent a Post Office box. A Post Office box is the safest way to have your mail delivered, and they’re not expensive if you rent one through the Postal Service. If you can’t be around when mail is delivered to your street box, then renting a Post Office box is the best way to protect your mail.
  • Use electronic payments and banking when possible. Sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? You would think that paying your bills online or using your online banking services would put you at greater risk for identity theft, but nothing could be further from the truth. When you’re conducting financial transactions online – safely – you’re far more protected than when you send checks through the mail that can be stolen, washed, and re-used. If you haven’t set up electronic payments, now is a good time.

    Protecting your mail and your identity really is just a matter of changing the way you think. It used to be safe to leave your mail in the mailbox all day. But then, it also used to be safe to leave your doors unlocked all the time.

    We don’t live in that world anymore. So take some time to think about the mail habits that you have that could put you at risk. Then change them. You’ll have one less point of risk when identity thieves come calling.