As part of the monthly bill-paying ordeal, I open my dreaded credit card statement, sigh, fold it back up, and proceed to recycle it. Immediately, my sharp-eyed mother scolds me and fetches the letter right back, tearing up the statement where my name, address, and account information was printed. Once an identity theft victim herself, my mother reminds me to take all precautions with my mail.
Such seemingly nuanced safety measures may be necessary amidst the rising crime of identity theft. According to a report filed by the Federal Trade Commission in 2008, California had the second-highest identity theft rate per capita, right behind Arizona. And in San Francisco alone, 86 cases of identity theft were investigated by the District Attorney’s Office last year.
Stealing mail from mailboxes and dumpsters are some of the most common ways your identity is stolen. Thieves search mailboxes for bank statements, checks, and tax forms and dig through trash looking for personal information. Just last year, police caught a man who stole nearly 2,000 lettersfrom mailboxes in an attempt to open fake bank accounts and credit cards.
One of the main places mail theft is happening is in single room occupancy hotels (SROs), residential hotels for individuals with low income. Ted Gullicksen, director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, said “In these hotels everything gets delivered in one pile to the front desk. It’s easy for people to go through that mail if the person on staff doesn’t get it distributed quickly. That’s why we’re seeing an issue.”
The city passed an ordinance in 2006 requiring SROs to provide residents individual, secure mailboxes, but the Postal Service has stopped separating mail for SROs as of last January due to fiscal issues.
In response, the city attorney filed a lawsuit against USPS last May. According to Gullicksen, both sides are currently “trying to reach a settlement.” USPS spokesperson James Wigdel told the Appeal he could not make any comments on SROs because the lawsuit is ongoing as to date.
As for all other residential mailboxes, under the 2010 California Tenants Booklet, landlords are required to provide tenants with “a locking mailbox for each unit.” If you don’t know whether you have a secure mailbox, check if it follows these USPS regulations. If not, talk to your landlord or contact the post office directly. Gullicksen said that tenants whose landlords refuse to comply with an adequate mailbox “could possibly get a decrease in rent through the Rent Board.”
Although mail may be a popular source for identity theft, it isn’t the only way these identity thieves kick start their shopping sprees. To find out more about common identity theft outlets and how to protect yourself, check out this guide to identity protection from the SF district attorney’s office.