April 24, 2024

Amid rising mail theft, post offices are failing to secure universal keys

The US Postal Service has promised rigorous measures to combat the increasing theft of US mail checks And packages for the sensitive information that identity thieves to long for.

But even if mail theft skyrocketed, from fewer than 60,000 complaints in 2018 to more than 250,000 in 2023, a CBS News investigation has found that the Postal Service is not consistently taking steps to secure millions of universal “dart keys” that open bulk mailboxes in apartment buildings and neighborhoods. coast.

A CBS News review of thousands of pages of audits, court records and agency documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act shows that postal workers and supervisors do not track the keys, lock them up or report them missing.

In audit after audit of postal facilities of New York Unpleasant Los AngelesThe agency’s independent inspectors documented that employees and supervisors failed to follow basic, long-standing rules designed to protect the keys — and prevent an easy way for thieves to steal U.S. mail in bulk.

From 2019 to 2024, data reviewed by CBS News showed that auditors checked 84 postal facilities for issues related to securing their arrow keys. Inspectors found untracked or unsecured arrow keys at 76 facilities in 25 states and the District of Columbia.

Line chart showing the number of mail theft complaints in the US from 2018 to 2022.

That is 90% of all monitored sites, according to data collected by CBS.

In September, the Postal Service’s inspector general identified arrow key responsibility as one of three areas the Post Office should focus on to reduce mail theft. This followed an earlier audit that found errors in the security of arrow keys in 2020.

“If regulators are not aware of or do not take action to account for and report missing arrow keys to the Postal Inspection Service, there is an increased risk that mail theft will continue to occur,” the inspector general wrote in 2023. “These thefts damage the reputation of the Postal Service is being eroded and public confidence in the nation’s postal system is being eroded.”

That’s certainly the case for Maria Tsalis, who learned from local police in January that thieves were chasing mail from cluster mailboxes in her Palos Heights, Illinois, neighborhood.

“I’m sure they would have just emptied my bank account. Luckily it was only two checks,” Tsalis said.

In response to the September 2023 inspector general report, Postal Service leaders said the agency would implement more arrow key training and awareness in November.

However, the data reviewed by CBS shows that the failures continue.

Last month, inspectors found security issues at 10 of the 12 facilities inspected so far this year, including postal locations in California, Texas, Minnesota and Maryland.

Federal law enforcement officials, members of Congress and the Postal Service itself have been reiterating for decades the Postal Service’s vulnerability to the loss and theft of the universal keys that open the ubiquitous blue collection boxes and cluster delivery boxes at apartments and subdivisions from coast to coast. CBS has found references to lax arrow keys dating back to 1999.

“In the 25 years you’re talking about – in the beginning of those 25 years – we implemented one-off mitigation strategies to address the weaknesses or vulnerabilities found with the current arrow key system” rather than implementing a broader approach. solution, says Peter Rendina, USPS deputy chief postal inspector.

The agency now says it is upgrading mailboxes with electronic locking mechanisms – a project that will take many years and billions of dollars. In the meantime, officials are promising better security for the arrow keys.

Rendina noted that there are hundreds of thousands of routes and post office boxes that need to be upgraded nationwide.

“This is not an overnight change,” Rendina said.

USPIS Deputy Chief Peter Rendina explains how post offices should maintain master keys


To assess how well the agency protects the keys, CBS News has examined every review of postal facilities over the past decade. The documents paint a picture of inspectors finding fundamental safety problems – with some patterns of repeated errors that violate Postal Service regulations.

Among the problems identified:

  • 17 missing arrow keys at the Eagan, Minnesota Post Office in 2024. Inspectors noted that “management was not aware of missing arrow keys” until inspectors pointed it out. Seven years earlier, the inspector general also found unsafe arrow keys in Eagan.

  • At Carrollton Station in New Orleans, inspectors reported that in 2023 there was a safe room for keys that had been “left unattended with the key left in the lock several times during our visit.”

  • At the Inglewood Carrier Annex in Southern California, inspectors this year found that more than half of the keys in the inventory — 88 of 130 — were missing and found that staff had certified that the list of arrow keys was accurate without “the actual keys inventory that were available’.

  • When inspectors checked 16 postal facilities during a 2019 inspection in the Richmond, Virginia, area, they found lax arrow key security at 15 locations. At one location, “management could not find ten arrow keys” and facility managers had last updated the arrow key log more than two years earlier.

Repeated issues often appear in reports about the same locations.

Inspectors found unsecured arrow keys at the Central Transportation Station in New Orleans during a 2020 audit. They returned three years later in 2023 and the facility was only able to hold keys for 21 of the 49 routes.

Carriers had kept 20 of them overnight, in violation of Postal Service rules that require keys to be checked in and out, tracked and locked when not in use. The cage where the keys were to be stored “was often left open and unattended during our visit,” inspectors wrote — a problem noted in reports from many facilities.

Map of the US showing postal facilities with untracked or unsecured arrow keys and facilities with no identified issues.

The inspector general also said the Postal Service does not have a national inventory of keys, does not know how many exist or how many are missing, stolen or broken. When asked how many keys were in circulation, agency leaders told the inspector general they did not know — only estimating “in the millions.”

That didn’t surprise Inspector General Tammy Hull.

“It’s not surprising, but it is concerning,” Hull told CBS. “And it’s something we see pretty much everywhere.”

“It’s a problem because the keys are critical to email security,” she said.

Inspector General says US Postal Service must do more to secure master keys


The issue of carriers and other postal workers having open access to keys is important because that is one of the ways criminals get the keys.

Federal arrest records and court cases are littered with examples of postal workers stealing the keys, selling the keys, or taking bribes in exchange for the keys.

In April 2023, auditors inspected four postal facilities in South Florida and found lax security around the arrow keys at three of them.

Less than two months later, federal agents received a tip about an area postal worker trying to sell arrow keys for $10,000. They set up a sting and the worker sold an undercover officer an arrow key and half a million dollars in stolen checks, according to court documents.

The arrested worker, the prosecutor said, admitted to stealing arrow keys, selling arrow keys and keeping a duffel bag full of checks worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in his home.

Arrow key trading is not uncommon. “Arrow tests can start at $1,000 and go up to $7,000” on the Internet black market, which has been tracked for years by criminology professor David Maimon of Georgia State University.

The desire for arrow keys has also led to violence against carriers. In a letter to U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said last year that 82% of robberies targeted arrow keys.

Documents obtained by CBS News showed that the number of cases of theft or assault against USPS employees increased every year from 2014 to 2023. In 2023 there were 1,129 cases. That is an increase of 404% compared to 2014, when there were still 224.

Bar chart showing the number of assault and theft cases against postal workers between 2013 and 2023.

Meanwhile, the Postal Inspection Service, which was supposed to protect the mail and protect the safety of postal workers, faced tight budgets and staffing during the wave of mail theft. The Postal Service received $541 million in 2004 and $584 million in 2023 – a decline of 33% when adjusted for inflation.

The inspection service’s workforce also fell from 2,914 inspectors in 2015 to approximately 2,300 in 2022, the last year it made estimates.

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