Police, U.S. Postal Service continue to investigate mailbox check theft scams happening in Princeton since early 2020

A resident told Planet Princeton he took a walk to the mailbox on Palmer Square the first week of August, and two checks he mailed were stolen and altered. The bank flagged them and didn’t cash them. Photo: Krystal Knapp.

A Princeton resident decided to take a walk on the night of Aug. 6 because he couldn’t sleep. He put checks for his utility bills in two envelopes, walked to Palmer Square, and placed the envelopes in the mailbox in front of the former post office.

About a week later, the resident was surprised to get a call from his bank asking him if he wrote two checks — one for more than $3,000 and one for almost $10,000 — to two people. The checks he had placed in the mailbox on Palmer Square had been stolen and altered, with the dollar amounts and the payees changed.

The resident was lucky that time. The bank caught the scam and didn’t cash the checks. Other Princeton residents have not been so fortunate. One Princeton resident told Planet Princeton he and his wife had a check stolen from a U.S. Postal Service mailbox in Princeton all the way back in February of 2020, just before the pandemic began. The thief who altered the check successfully cashed it and received $1,000. The resident never recovered the money. His bank, Bank of America, made him file paperwork several times but deemed his submission incomplete. More than a year and a half later, he has not recouped his loss from the theft.

Such thefts are becoming common across the country, as are residential mailbox theft sprees such as the recent one in the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. In some areas where thefts have occurred like Rocky Hill, U.S. Postal Service boxes have been replaced with boxes that make it difficult for mail to be stolen. Princeton mailboxes still have wider openings that make it easy for someone to retrieve mail.

Some Princeton residents who have had their checks stolen feel that agencies are slow to take any action to investigate. One of the residents who spoke with Planet Princeton about the issue last week said he was told the mailboxes are federal property and thus fall under the federal government’s jurisdiction. He said he was told the federal government wouldn’t take action to investigate a mailbox theft under $125,000.

But asked last week by Planet Princeton about the mail thefts, representatives for the Princeton Police Department said they have been and continue to investigate these incidents with United States Postal Inspectors. The US. Postal Service has jurisdiction over crimes that involve U.S. mail, and thus U.S. Postal Inspectors have been involved in all of the police department’s investigations, said. Sgt. Thomas Lagomarsino of the Princeton Police Department’s Safe Neighborhood Bureau. The police department has also been in contact with the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office about the incidents, Lagomarsino said. Princeton has had active investigations that date back to the beginning of 2020. These cases are still under investigation and no arrests have been made, Lagomarsino said.

Some residents told Planet Princeton they suspect that their checks are being altered and then cashed using mobile apps. Lagomarsino said the Princeton cases are still under investigation to make the determination on how and where they are deposited. Police have not discovered a case so far in Princeton where a mobile app was used for a deposit.

Such incidents have happened all over the state and all over Princeton. Most recently, the mailboxes in and around Nassau Street have been targeted, Lagomarsino said.

If you are a victim of mail theft, you should report the theft immediately. Mail theft is a federal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. If you believe you were a victim of mail theft, report the incident to both local police and the U.S. Postal Service.

15 tips for preventing mail theft both at home and when dropping off mail

  1. Deposit checks inside your local post office during business hours.
  2. Deposit mail close to pickup time.
  3. Go paperless. Pay your bills and transfer money to others online instead.
  4. Don’t send cash.
  5. Replace your standard mailbox with one that locks.
  6. Put a motion detecting surveillance camera at your front door.
  7. Install security lights.
  8. Rent out a Post Office Box.
  9. Promptly pick up your mail.
  10. Inquire about overdue mail
  11. Arrange for prompt pickup
  12. Use hold for pickup
  13. Request signature confirmation
  14. File a change of address
  15. Use informed delivery, which allows you to preview incoming mail through scanned images of the exterior address side of letter sized mail.