Cincinnati-area residents out millions as mail theft surges; local checks being sold online


New data and personal accounts are shedding light on how prevalent mail theft is becoming across greater Cincinnati and beyond and where it is ending up once stolen. Innocent people attempting to mail checks, often to pay bills, are being victimized and losing thousands of dollars. WLWT tracked down local owners of checks posted on the dark web for sale. One of them, Nancy Brun who lives in Bellevue, said the situation left her feeling ill.”I don’t know what the solution is for this major problem, but I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” Brun said. “It leaves a very sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach to think that somebody can just do that to you.”Brun and her husband said they stopped using blue collection boxes earlier this year after seeing news reports that thieves were targeting postal workers and stealing master keys.Last Sunday evening was an exception. Brun had to mail a credit card payment. She said her neighborhood post offices were closed so she and her husband decided to drive to Cincinnati and drop the check in a blue collection box outside the Dalton Avenue post office. “I said oh it will be fine. One night, you know? Well little did I know one night was going to turn into a nightmare,” Brun said.Two days later she checked her bank account and was shocked to see a $5,000 charge. She did not recognize the name of the person the check was made out to either. “And I went oh my God! I didn’t write a check for $5,000,” Brun said. “I thought that can’t be because that check was written out for my credit card bill.”Her check was stolen, sold online, washed and cashed within two days. Brun noted the penmanship of the fraudster disappointed her, as did their spelling errors.”If you’re going to imitate me or impersonate me, at least get the spelling correct,” she said.Brun’s bank closed her checking account and reimbursed her for $5,000.The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office alone has investigated more than 130 cases of mail theft this year. Detectives tell WLWT the victims are out of more than $2 million collectively. David Maimon is a professor at Georgia State University and the director of the Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group at Georgia State University. He and a team of students have been investigating stolen mail and checks on the dark web since 2020. “We’re talking about organized crime groups running this kind of operation,” Maimon said. “You have people who are responsible for robbing the mail carriers. Then you have people who are responsible for taking the arrow keys and going at 3 o’clock in the morning or 4 o’clock and emptying those boxes. Then you have people who are responsible for sorting through the mail, finding the checks, washing the checks. Then you have the individuals who are responsible for selling the checks. You have the mules who are responsible for cashing the checks.”On the dark web, secret websites and chat rooms, Maimon said arrow keys are sold for thousands of dollars and checks are sold for hundreds. “Ohio is one of those hot spots,” he said. “Columbus is a hotbed. Cincinnati is a hotbed.”Maimon emphasized he is not affiliated with law enforcement. His research is for scientific purposes only. In the fall of 2020, the cybersecurity research group was finding about 114 stolen checks for sale each week.In 2022, the group said it’s finding about 2,000 stolen checks for sale each week. Nancy Brun’s was one of them.”It kind of makes me want to sit and cry,” she said. “You called me and told me that my check had been sold on the dark web. Well, first of all, I don’t really know what the dark web is, although I’ve heard things. But none of them were good.”Thieves are targeting postal workers, stealing arrow keys which are essentially a master key that allows postal workers to access every blue collection box and cluster box in a corresponding zip code. “Once they have that key they can steal incredible amounts of mail and very easily,” said Frank Albergo, who represents union employees of the Postal Police Force, USPS’ uniformed law enforcement agency.A United States Postal Inspection Service policy change in 2020 limited the powers of the force. Albergo said it sidelined officers from investigating crimes like mail theft, leaving those investigations solely to postal inspectors to investigate.Albergo believes thieves now see the postal service as a soft target.”They know exactly what they’re doing,” he said. “Now they’re actually dressing up as letter carriers and retrieving the mail out of the blue collection boxes so it doesn’t even look suspicious.”A postal worker was robbed in Covington last week. Another was robbed at gunpoint in College Hill in July. In Norwood, a postal worker was robbed at gunpoint while sitting in his mail truck. “I looked in my mirror and I seen the kid had a mask on, and when he came around he had the gun pointed right at me and then stuck it straight to my head, screaming for my keys,” the mailman told Norwood police on body camera footage. In the Covington case, the Postal Inspection Service is asking anyone with information on the robbery to call their 24/7 hotline at 877-876-2455. WLWT asked the Postal Inspection Service and U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District, which prosecutes federal crimes, about arrests made in Cincinnati area mail crimes in the last year. Postal inspectors at the Cincinnati field office said investigations are ongoing and active. WLWT has not learned of any arrests made in the greater Cincinnati region since the crime trend has surged. The postal inspector released a statement to WLWT reading: “We want to ensure our customers that the mail is still one of the safest means of sending information. We encourage customers who use our blue collection boxes to deposit outgoing mail before the last pick up of the day. The times are labeled on boxes. This ensures the mail will pick up promptly and entered into the mail stream. We also encourage customers to walk inside any of our postal facilities where they can hand outgoing mail over the counter to the postal clerk or deposit into a mail slip inside the facilities.”

New data and personal accounts are shedding light on how prevalent mail theft is becoming across greater Cincinnati and beyond and where it is ending up once stolen.

Innocent people attempting to mail checks, often to pay bills, are being victimized and losing thousands of dollars.

WLWT tracked down local owners of checks posted on the dark web for sale.

One of them, Nancy Brun who lives in Bellevue, said the situation left her feeling ill.

“I don’t know what the solution is for this major problem, but I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” Brun said. “It leaves a very sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach to think that somebody can just do that to you.”

Brun and her husband said they stopped using blue collection boxes earlier this year after seeing news reports that thieves were targeting postal workers and stealing master keys.

Last Sunday evening was an exception.

Brun had to mail a credit card payment. She said her neighborhood post offices were closed so she and her husband decided to drive to Cincinnati and drop the check in a blue collection box outside the Dalton Avenue post office.

“I said oh it will be fine. One night, you know? Well little did I know one night was going to turn into a nightmare,” Brun said.

Two days later she checked her bank account and was shocked to see a $5,000 charge. She did not recognize the name of the person the check was made out to either.

“And I went oh my God! I didn’t write a check for $5,000,” Brun said. “I thought that can’t be because that check was written out for my credit card bill.”

Her check was stolen, sold online, washed and cashed within two days. Brun noted the penmanship of the fraudster disappointed her, as did their spelling errors.

“If you’re going to imitate me or impersonate me, at least get the spelling correct,” she said.

Brun’s bank closed her checking account and reimbursed her for $5,000.

The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office alone has investigated more than 130 cases of mail theft this year.

Detectives tell WLWT the victims are out of more than $2 million collectively.

David Maimon is a professor at Georgia State University and the director of the Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group at Georgia State University. He and a team of students have been investigating stolen mail and checks on the dark web since 2020.

“We’re talking about organized crime groups running this kind of operation,” Maimon said. “You have people who are responsible for robbing the mail carriers. Then you have people who are responsible for taking the arrow keys and going at 3 o’clock in the morning or 4 o’clock and emptying those boxes. Then you have people who are responsible for sorting through the mail, finding the checks, washing the checks. Then you have the individuals who are responsible for selling the checks. You have the mules who are responsible for cashing the checks.”

On the dark web, secret websites and chat rooms, Maimon said arrow keys are sold for thousands of dollars and checks are sold for hundreds.

“Ohio is one of those hot spots,” he said. “Columbus is a hotbed. Cincinnati is a hotbed.”

Maimon emphasized he is not affiliated with law enforcement. His research is for scientific purposes only.

In the fall of 2020, the cybersecurity research group was finding about 114 stolen checks for sale each week.

In 2022, the group said it’s finding about 2,000 stolen checks for sale each week.

Nancy Brun’s was one of them.

“It kind of makes me want to sit and cry,” she said. “You called me and told me that my check had been sold on the dark web. Well, first of all, I don’t really know what the dark web is, although I’ve heard things. But none of them were good.”

Thieves are targeting postal workers, stealing arrow keys which are essentially a master key that allows postal workers to access every blue collection box and cluster box in a corresponding zip code.

“Once they have that key they can steal incredible amounts of mail and very easily,” said Frank Albergo, who represents union employees of the Postal Police Force, USPS’ uniformed law enforcement agency.

A United States Postal Inspection Service policy change in 2020 limited the powers of the force. Albergo said it sidelined officers from investigating crimes like mail theft, leaving those investigations solely to postal inspectors to investigate.

Albergo believes thieves now see the postal service as a soft target.

“They know exactly what they’re doing,” he said. “Now they’re actually dressing up as letter carriers and retrieving the mail out of the blue collection boxes so it doesn’t even look suspicious.”

A postal worker was robbed in Covington last week. Another was robbed at gunpoint in College Hill in July.

In Norwood, a postal worker was robbed at gunpoint while sitting in his mail truck.

“I looked in my mirror and I seen the kid had a mask on, and when he came around he had the gun pointed right at me and then stuck it straight to my head, screaming for my keys,” the mailman told Norwood police on body camera footage.

In the Covington case, the Postal Inspection Service is asking anyone with information on the robbery to call their 24/7 hotline at 877-876-2455.

WLWT asked the Postal Inspection Service and U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District, which prosecutes federal crimes, about arrests made in Cincinnati area mail crimes in the last year.

Postal inspectors at the Cincinnati field office said investigations are ongoing and active.

WLWT has not learned of any arrests made in the greater Cincinnati region since the crime trend has surged.

The postal inspector released a statement to WLWT reading: “We want to ensure our customers that the mail is still one of the safest means of sending information. We encourage customers who use our blue collection boxes to deposit outgoing mail before the last pick up of the day. The times are labeled on boxes. This ensures the mail will pick up promptly and entered into the mail stream. We also encourage customers to walk inside any of our postal facilities where they can hand outgoing mail over the counter to the postal clerk or deposit into a mail slip inside the facilities.”



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