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US mail theft often begins with a stolen key

A Scripps News investigation finds more postal workers are getting attacked for the master keys they carry that unlock scores of mailboxes.
US mail theft often begins with a stolen key
Posted at 9:39 AM, Apr 10, 2024

U.S. mail carrier Jeremiah Grant was walking his Oklahoma City route in April 2022 when a masked man approached him.

“He had a gun pointed at me,” Grant said. “I just kind of froze.”

The attacker demanded Grant hand over his universal mailbox keys, known in the U.S. Postal Service as arrow keys.

“That's all he asked for,” Grant said. “He wanted my keys.”

One arrow key can open many mailboxes in a delivery area.

They’re so valuable that it’s against federal law for an unauthorized person to be in possession of one.

But that hasn’t prevented a nationwide wave of robberies involving arrow keys.

A Scripps News investigation found an increasing number of letter carriers being targeted by criminals on the hunt for arrow keys.

In 2021, 132 arrow keys were snatched away from mail carriers. By 2023, that number had more than tripled to 418, according to numbers we obtained from the Postal Inspection Service after filing a public records request.

Arrow keys have been stolen from letter carriers in 39 states and Washington, D.C.

“They are very high in demand from the criminals,” said David Maimon, director of the Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group at Georgia State University.

His team monitors thousands of underground markets online used to sell illegal goods.

"The arrow keys popped up, I would say, a year and a half ago,” Maimon said. “Criminals were selling those arrow keys for a wide range of prices, starting from $1,000 to $7,000.”

Maimon agreed to show Scripps News some of the encrypted messaging platforms he and his team have infiltrated, providing a rare look at where stolen arrow keys commonly end up.

Photos of the keys for sale online show the letters “USPS” engraved on them as well as an arrow.

An ad for one of the arrow keys comes with a promise of same-day delivery.

Because the design of the keys differs slightly by region, sellers will indicate where they supposedly work.

One of the keys going for $4,500 includes a reference to a specific ZIP code.

A key for $1,200 had "NY” and “NJ” scrawled below it, suggesting it would unlock boxes in New York and New Jersey.

The keys are worth so much because they allow quick access to stacks of mail without anyone having to break into a mailbox.

SEE MORE: New bill in congress would help protect US postal workers

An attorney in Charlotte, North Carolina, shared surveillance video of two masked men approaching a cluster mailbox outside her office at 1:36 a.m. in 2022.

Using an arrow key, they are seen opening rows of mailboxes belonging to multiple businesses.

In less than a minute they load a black trash bag full of everything inside.

“Mail theft becomes extremely popular simply because of the amount of money you can make,” Maimon said.

The same online markets selling arrow keys also are offering checks that appear to be stolen from the mail, Maimon said.

“This is a $3 million IRS check,” Maimon said, showing a check he comes across in one of the online groups he follows. “Unbelievable.”

There also are handwritten personal checks for sale from all over the country for much smaller amounts that fraudsters alter and then cash for a higher sum in a process known as check washing.

The job of preventing mail theft falls to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service headquartered in Washington, D.C.

“We're seeing that these mail thieves are now much more organized,” said Peter Rendina, deputy chief inspector for security and crime prevention. “Whether it's financial, medicine, care packages — the criminals know that they can access that if they can get access to the mail.”

The Postal Service has launched an initiative called Project Safe Delivery, installing more-secure blue collection boxes in high theft areas and replacing 28,000 arrow keys with electronic locks.

In the past five months, both letter carrier robberies and complaints about mail theft have dropped, while arrests are up, according to the Postal Service.

But a 2023 inspector general’s report released this past fall said the Postal Inspection Service still needs to finalize a mail theft strategy and should require more specialized training for inspectors.

“We're doing surges of resources where we're seeing the most crime,” Rendina said. “We've done a number of city surges, specifically in Chicago, San Francisco and cities across Ohio.”

Arrow keys aren’t just being stolen; they’re also getting lost.

The Postal Service has reported more than 8,000 arrow keys missing since 2018, according to data Scripps News received from the Postal Inspection Service.

“Over the years we have continually worked on accountability,” Rendina said. “So this is a continual process.”

Congress is now considering a bill that would set aside $1.4 billion a year to install additional high-security mailboxes and electronic locks to phase out more arrow keys.

The legislation would make penalties for assaulting or robbing a postal employee the same as attacking a law enforcement officer.

"Our letter carriers are part of your community,” Rendina said. “If you see someone suspicious following the carrier or a vehicle that keeps circling the area while your carrier is there, I'm asking you to call 911.”

Letter carriers have been holding rallies across the country to draw attention to the threat they face on the street.

Jeremiah Grant spoke about being one of six letter carriers attacked in Oklahoma since 2022.

“During the robbery I felt an overwhelming fear unlike anything I had ever experienced before,” he said. “The realization that my life and my family’s well-being hung in the balance was a weight that no letter carrier should have to bear.”

After months spent reliving the trauma of that day, Grant gave up his job as a letter carrier.

He now works as a clerk inside a local post office.

“This robbery changed everything,” Grant said. “I don't feel comfortable being on the street carrying the mail.”

SEE MORE: 5 men arrested in 'massive' mail fraud scheme in Florida

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