Troubleshooters: Checks, postal service keys hot on black market

Telegram chat rooms have Postal Service master keys and stolen checks for sale
Published: Jul. 19, 2022 at 3:04 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - The arrest of two men caught on video grabbing mail from a blue post office collection box and chucking it into a waiting car has shined a spotlight on a growing problem.

Thieves are getting access to mail with stolen Postal Service keys.

A branch of the Postal Service’s law enforcement arm said this problem was predictable.

Thieves target mail for the checks because check fraud is a crime that’s alive and well.

For five months now, Robert Zoeller has been stumped.

“I have had at least four checks that just disappeared into thin air,” Zoeller said.

His Louisville water, Verizon, and Spectrum accounts weren’t getting paid.

“The only way that I knew the companies did not get my checks, is I would either get a late fee or an email saying you owe us whatever amount,” Zoeller said.

The mystery only deepened when he got a postcard from his bank.

“On June 15, somebody somewhere tried to cash a check for $9,740,” Zoeller said.

He checked his register.

“And I’m looking at the check that they tried to cash which was check 6203, which I never sent out,” he said. “I don’t even have that check in my possession.”

And then he remembered the video of Brandon King and Angel Martin swiftly opening up a post office collection box in Jeffersontown, chucking the mail into their car, and driving off. Police said they caught them with a postal service key.

“I’m going, that’s where my check ended up at,” Zoeller said.

WAVE Troubleshooters can’t tie Zoeller’s check to King and Angel, but that is a box he drops his mail into frequently. And when he went to the post office, an employee told Zoeller lots of keys had gone missing.

“There’s a lot more keys missing than one,” Zoeller said. “He said we don’t know how many are missing.”

The Postal Service’s inspector general issued a critical audit in 2020 stating:

“The Postal Service’s management controls over arrow keys were ineffective. Specifically, the number of arrow keys in circulation is unknown, and local units did not adequately report lost, stolen, or broken keys or maintain key inventories.”

“He said they’re stealing mail outside of boxes from here to Cincinnati,” Zoeller said.

The Postal Inspection Service confirmed it was investigating mail theft complaints in a story Troubleshooter covered in May. Data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act showed the postal inspectors had received 624 mail theft complaints in 15 months.

The Evidence Based Cybersecurity Research Group out of Georgia State University had been tracking check fraud related to mail theft on Telegram chat rooms and then the dark web. In October last year, it tracked 60 chat rooms and found nearly 200 stolen checks from Indiana and 13 from Kentucky up for sale.

As Troubleshooters dug on Telegram, half a dozen USPS keys for sale were found. Price, one to three grand, and it’s all yours.

“These keys allow access not only to the blue collection boxes, but apartment panels, and cluster boxes, and it’s a free for fall,” Postal Police Association President Frank Albergo said.

Besides the keys, Troubleshooters also found people posting checks for sale, and a short video showing someone washing the ink off a check.

“We were deployed to specific zip codes where mail theft was prevalent, we were using crime mapping, we were using local police statistics, and you could do a lot with a little,” Albergo said.

King and Martin are now facing federal charges. An affidavit filed by a postal inspector in the case said he was aware of $350,000 in check fraud related to mail theft in Jefferson County. The inspector also noted three mail carriers had been robbed between January and October 2020.

Albergo said that’s why his officers were stunned when the Postal Service told them they could no longer patrol outside of post offices in 2020.

“All of a sudden, the Postal Service decided we shouldn’t be doing that anymore,” Albergo said.

The union sued, but a federal court tossed the case and said the Postal Service’s interpretation of the law was fine. The Postal Inspection Service sent WAVE a statement saying in part:

“Postal Police Officers do not have the authority to investigate crimes off Postal Service Property. That’s the role of the Postal Inspectors.”

Albergo disagreed.

“It’s better to deter crime rather than investigate it after it happens,” Albergo said.

The federal case against King and Martin is just getting started.

Whether the pair is entirely responsible for the surge in mail theft, or are just part of a number or criminal operations remains to be seen.

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