mail.jpgAs 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.

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  • Greg Dewar

    Having gone through this myself, here’s a few other recommendations: Do NOT mail any rent checks, bills, etc. via a standard mailbox on the street. No matter what kind of neighborhood you’re in, these things are vulnerable. Mail at a Post Office instead if you can.

    another thing to do is if you are the victim of ID theft due to something being stolen out of your mailbox at your apartment is to contact the US Postal Inspector. Stealing mail is a federal crime, and the US Postal Inspector Office has resources the local PD may not have, especially if your area has been targeted by thieves. This is also good for documenting after you’ve been id thefted.

    Finally if you can afford it, and your apartment has crappy mailboxes, get at USPS PO Box (NOT a private mail box). These tend to be more secure, as they are in an actual post office, and if you ever move you can have your mail forwarded with the standard mail forwarding form. You cannot do that with a private mail box.

  • Greg Dewar

    Having gone through this myself, here’s a few other recommendations: Do NOT mail any rent checks, bills, etc. via a standard mailbox on the street. No matter what kind of neighborhood you’re in, these things are vulnerable. Mail at a Post Office instead if you can.

    another thing to do is if you are the victim of ID theft due to something being stolen out of your mailbox at your apartment is to contact the US Postal Inspector. Stealing mail is a federal crime, and the US Postal Inspector Office has resources the local PD may not have, especially if your area has been targeted by thieves. This is also good for documenting after you’ve been id thefted.

    Finally if you can afford it, and your apartment has crappy mailboxes, get at USPS PO Box (NOT a private mail box). These tend to be more secure, as they are in an actual post office, and if you ever move you can have your mail forwarded with the standard mail forwarding form. You cannot do that with a private mail box.

  • Burgos

    On a Friday evening of December, 2009, I was rushing out the door to meet a friend for supper. I opened my mailbox, which is in the lobby of my building and found a letter from the Rent Board. I tore it open, read the contents, and placed it back in the box. I didn’t take it with me because, well, what would be the point?
    I got home full of joy and sangria, so I forgot the letter in the locked mailbox. The next day, Saturday, I noticed the mail carrier’s truck pulling up to my building so I ran downstairs to retrieve the letter – GONE! I went out and found the carrier, a substitute – not the regular guy, I asked him if he had delivered mail to my building already and whether he had taken any mail out of my mailbox; he tensed up and with his very limited english said he didn’t know anything about it. I know what I do and when I do it, so something wasn’t right. I asked him for his supervisor’s phone number and I called. The supervisor was cagey, and went on to claim that sometimes carriers return accumulated mail. ??????? I’ve been here for almost twenty years, and I’m the sole occupant of this apartment. I gave him an exact accounting of what happened and he claimed he was going to check with the regular carrier. He called back and said that they didn’t know anything about the letter.
    My point is, if you think that you’re going to get help from the people inside USPS, you may be in for a let-down.
    To this day I have no clue from them as to what happened to that letter.

  • Burgos

    On a Friday evening of December, 2009, I was rushing out the door to meet a friend for supper. I opened my mailbox, which is in the lobby of my building and found a letter from the Rent Board. I tore it open, read the contents, and placed it back in the box. I didn’t take it with me because, well, what would be the point?
    I got home full of joy and sangria, so I forgot the letter in the locked mailbox. The next day, Saturday, I noticed the mail carrier’s truck pulling up to my building so I ran downstairs to retrieve the letter – GONE! I went out and found the carrier, a substitute – not the regular guy, I asked him if he had delivered mail to my building already and whether he had taken any mail out of my mailbox; he tensed up and with his very limited english said he didn’t know anything about it. I know what I do and when I do it, so something wasn’t right. I asked him for his supervisor’s phone number and I called. The supervisor was cagey, and went on to claim that sometimes carriers return accumulated mail. ??????? I’ve been here for almost twenty years, and I’m the sole occupant of this apartment. I gave him an exact accounting of what happened and he claimed he was going to check with the regular carrier. He called back and said that they didn’t know anything about the letter.
    My point is, if you think that you’re going to get help from the people inside USPS, you may be in for a let-down.
    To this day I have no clue from them as to what happened to that letter.