According to police, scammers looking to defraud residents out of thousands of dollars or steal their identity may now be using more than a suspicious phone call. Det. Lt. John Nagle of the Glen Cove Police Department said that criminals are using an unlawful activity known as “mail fishing” to obtain victim’s checks, cash and personal information from mailboxes.
Nagle explained that suspects look for traditional mailboxes, those with a pull-down handle, and place a long stick with an adhesive on the end through the door of the mailbox and inside its chute. They then move the stick around until it adheres to a piece of mail and reel it out of the chute along with the mail it adhered to.
These suspects, who Nagle called “mail fishers,” are looking for mail that contains checks and personal information.
“If a check is fished out of the mailbox the criminals will alter the amount on the check, change who the check is made out to [and] have the check cashed,” he said. “Many times the victims don’t realize their mail or check has been stolen until they check their account, or the recipient of the mail notifies [the sender] that the item never reached them.”
Earlier this month, GCPD reported that six United States Postal Service mailboxes in Glen Cove might have been subject to mail fishing over the course of a weekend. Police reported that an unidentified adhesive was found on the pull-down handle and inside the mailbox’s chute at these locations. (see box) Officials have yet to identify exactly what the adhesive is, but Nagle said it resembles an extremely sticky, sap-like substance.
GCPD reviews daily reports from the Nassau County Police Department, Nagle said, to keep tabs on mail fishing incidences that occur outside of the city’s jurisdiction. He said that neighborhoods like Great Neck and Manhasset were “getting slammed with these types of crimes,” which mostly occur at night.
It is still unclear to local police who is perpetrating these crimes, but Nagle said he believes the suspects are not from the area. He added that he wouldn’t be surprised if these “mail fishers” were three or four people acting as a group or a single individual acting alone.
According to a March 2019 article in The New York Times, the United States Postal Service is replacing or retrofitting mailboxes in much of the northeast to eliminate the pull-down handle in favor of a slender mail slot. The Times also reported that approximately 7,000 mailboxes in New York City and other parts of the tri-state are being revamped, but there are no plans yet for a nationwide overhaul.
“Our post office mailbox in Glen Cove has been changed so these mail fishers can’t access it, but the post offices in Glen Head and Sea Cliff have recently had numerous checks fished out of those mailboxes,” Nagle said. “Those checks were subsequently altered and fraudulently cashed for thousands of dollars.”
The Glen Cove, Glen Head, Sea Cliff and East Norwich post offices have each retrofitted their outdoor mailboxes to the slot-style design in an effort to discourage mail fishing.
Oyster Bay Post Office has three mailboxes. One of the boxes still has the traditional pull-down handle.
Patrick Kelly, who has lived in Oyster Bay for 11 years, paused on Tuesday night before depositing his mail, choosing one of the newer mailboxes. He didn’t want to use the traditional pull-down mailbox because he said he’s seen mail get stuck in it. Kelly had never seen the new mail slot boxes and after using it said he wished he could be certain that his mail went through the narrow entryway.
Kelly said he hadn’t heard anything about mail fishing, adding that he wasn’t surprised that it was happening.
“Peoples’ identities are so vulnerable,” he said. “I’m sure people don’t know that using a mailbox is another way to have their identities stolen.”
The Glen Head Post Office upgraded its mailboxes two months ago. One of its representative indicated that some residents had raised concerns of mail fishing in the past, but that the newer, slot-style mailboxes are “more secure.”
Pastor Kim Wilson, of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Glen Head, lives just steps away from a USPS mailbox; it still has the pull-down handle. She did note the slot-style mailboxes at the Glen Head Post Office, however, saying she had trouble depositing invitations for her daughter’s graduation there. “At first I couldn’t figure out how to get the mail in,” Wilson said. “It’s much more difficult to get your hand in.”
As a member of the clergy, Wilson expressed concern about church donations getting stolen by so-called mail fishers. “We get check donations through the mail, so we want to make sure those donations get to the proper place,” she said, “but we wouldn’t even know if they took it out of our mailbox.”
Glen Head resident Kristina Lacy also lives within proximity of a USPS mailbox with a pull-down handle. She said she uses it about once a week. “We haven’t had any issues with that, but it’s concerning to hear,” Lacy said of the mail scams. “Being knowledgeable about things that are happening in the surrounding communities will heighten our awareness, and we’ll be keeping a more watchful eye.”
Wilson said she also worried about senior citizens, who are more partial to using mailboxes to send checks than a middle- or millennial-aged individual that prefers making payments online. Nagle said he understood that older populations still rely on “snail mail,” which is why the department sends an officer to the Glen Cove Senior Center every few weeks to educate seniors about scams that may be targeting them.
Nagle recommends any resident who observes an individual loitering near a mailbox late at night to contact the Police Department. “These scams are developing every day,” he said, “and the internet is a valuable tool to find out what these scams are and how you can protect yourself. Making payments the old fashioned way is not a bad thing, you just have to be careful.”
Laura Lane contributed to this story.