In recent years, “hacking” has become a household term used as commonly in domestic conversation as grocery lists, Sunday dinner and reality TV.
Through such electronic wizardry, identity theft burst upon the crime horizon years ago — and not just locally, but regionally, nationally and globally. In short, anyone who owns a computer, and any who use it to conduct business or personal transactions, is subject to such invasion.
Yet, the alarming spread of identity theft is not limited to this new era of electronics.
Sadly, it also is perpetrated in the simplest of ways, using a device that decades ago would never have been considered as opportunity for criminal minds nor fodder for wrongdoing.
We speak of mailboxes.
Most people have them. The vast majority use them. And now fewer have reason to trust them.
An incident in our Cleveland hometown tells the disturbing story as to why.
As revealed in a news account published on the front page of this newspaper, a recent investigation by the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office uncovered evidence that as many as 50 to 60 local residents may have been victimized by an identity theft scheme. Through a traffic stop, BCSO Deputy Paul Allen discovered mail that allegedly had been stolen, and apparently from personal mailboxes.
Although such thefts can also be linked to automobile break-ins — whether forcibly or simply by opening an unlocked door — it is believed most came from mailboxes.
According to Detective Dewayne Scoggins, evidence points to suspicions that the perpetrator, or perhaps more than one who are working in unison, are stealing mail from boxes when it is outgoing. For instance, residents who place sealed envelopes containing checks or other personal information in their boxes for postal carrier pickup are the easiest targets. In some cases, criminals are removing mail from boxes after its delivery by postmen, but before residents collect it.
Such materials are also stolen from wallets, purses and unlocked cars, but unwatched mailboxes are falling prey more and more to the unscrupulous who are using this personal information (such as that listed on personal checks) to hack bank accounts or even to order credit cards through pre-approved applications which often are found among the vast supply of “junk mail” making its way into mailboxes everywhere. These include boxes found at the end of a driveway, near the front door of a home or even a pool of mailboxes in a central location such as those servicing apartment units or a housing complex.
Whether mail is stolen from mailboxes or parked vehicles, BCSO investigators offer a few tips — and we’ll add some of our own — that will help to protect unsuspecting victims of theft. Just a few include:
1. Always — that’s always — keep parked vehicles locked.
2. Never leave items like purses, wallets, mail or anything that includes personal information inside vehicles where they can be seen through windows.
3. In spite of its many conveniences, do not leave outgoing mail that includes checks or personal information in mailboxes.
4. Make every effort to collect delivered (incoming) mail from boxes as early in the day or evening as possible.
5. Consider establishing Neighborhood Watch programs that can safeguard against such crimes.
6. Get to know your next-door neighbor to a degree of trust that will lend itself to mutual pacts of property surveillance and protection.
It is sad that such a valued part of American life like mailboxes is falling victim to those who will steal, cheat and connive their way into the privacy, and the money, of others.
Yet it is happening.
Stopping it entirely might be asking too much, but slowing its pace is doable.
We recommend common sense as a first step.