By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
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By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
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Doris Flynn promptly mailed two checks to pay her property taxes last November and went about her business, thinking all was well.
By January, however, all was clearly not well. Late notices arrived in the mail, along with penalties. The checks had disappeared. Flynn was not alone. At least four of her neighbors near Duboce and Castro have had their mail stolen during the past few months.
For one, it was the utility bills; for another, it was money sent to her daughter. One neighbor found that a credit account that she thought she had paid instead became the subject of collection agency interest.
"It was a pain in the neck, because I had to pay for stopped payments and reissue the checks and so forth," says another neighbor, who lost four checks. "One day I had to make four long-distance telephone calls."
Flynn and neighbors were victims of what is not only a recent trend in crime, but a burgeoning business: mail theft. The San Francisco division of the U.S. Postal Service in 1994 arrested 166 people for mail theft. By 1995, that number had jumped 58 percent to 263 arrests.
And postal criminals are organized. Stealing your birthday money from Grandma has gone the way of a simple cup o' joe. The new mail-theft schemes are elaborate.
These days, postal inspectors must track down criminals who use stolen and counterfeit keys to open collection boxes. With keys, cleaning out piles of mail takes only minutes.
Stealing credit cards has been a constant in crime history, but check-washing is on the rise, according to Postal Inspector Jeff Fitch.
In this variety of laundering, mail-fraud artists apply chemicals that remove ink from checks; then, the scammers can write in new payees and inflated draws. The $40 check to the utility company suddenly becomes a $500 check to a stranger. More complex schemes include setting up a bank account with phony identification, so the checks can be cashed easily.
"This is a very serious thing. It's on the increase," Fitch says. "The days when people could just take the electric bill and a clothespin and leave it on their mailbox are over."
If thieves continue to look for checks and credit cards, they are increasingly searching for information.
From stolen mail and paperwork thrown in the trash, criminals aim to build profiles of their victims -- profiles that include Social Security number, date of birth, employment, account numbers, mother's maiden name.
Criminals use that personal information to drain bank accounts. They also have been known to open credit accounts, charge them to the limit, and have the bills sent to phony addresses, creating a delay -- sometimes as long as months -- before victims find out that they've got new charge accounts and plenty of new unpaid bills.
Last year, postal inspectors nabbed a leader in Bay Area mail theft, William "The Brain" Reed. Originally arrested in May 1994, Reed subsequently walked away from a halfway house and stole at least 5,000 pieces of mail before being recaptured last fall.
Postal inspectors say that, like many of his colleagues in mail crime, Reed had taken to operating a loose-knit organization of mail scammers.
Typically, younger street thugs do the riskier tasks --stealing from mailboxes and cashing checks in exchange for a percentage of the take. Others will buy and sell checks, credit cards, and information among themselves.
"[Reed] worked the system as well as anyone we've ever seen," says Gary Welch, a postal inspector who investigated Reed's activities.
By the time Reed was recaptured, postal authorities estimate, he was responsible for thefts totaling about $250,000 and affecting some 1,800 people in San Francisco. In March, he was sentenced to 40 months in federal prison and a $70,000 fine.
There are other William Reeds out there and many lesser, but still devastating, postal criminals in the city.
In November, postal authorities arrested two people for stealing checks from the mail in Japantown and Pacific Heights. Earlier in the year, inspectors arrested five organizers and 14 "runners" who were recruited to cash checks. The runners had been equipped with stolen credit cards and counterfeit out-of-state driver's licenses, which enabled them to cash checks and pull cash advances on accounts.
"We've been around forever. We have pursued Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," says Fitch. "We go after mail thieves regularly, but we need the public's help.
"People used to leave mail out for the carrier to pick up. You can't do that anymore. Don't leave mail in the collection box after the last pickup."
Authorities also recommend shredding documents headed for the trash and knowing the Postal Service routine in your neighborhood.
"If you see someone using a key to get into a postal box at 2 a.m., it's probably not a postal employee," says Fitch.