Despite the emergence of cybercrime, mail theft can still be an easy way for thieves to steal your identification. According to the US Postal Service's 2016 Annual Report, it received over 60,000 complaints of mail theft last year, which resulted in over 2,000 convictions. This is just the tip of the iceberg as a larger amount of stolen mail goes unreported, or occurs without the recipient's knowledge. And it takes just one piece of intercepted mail for a criminal to begin stealing your identity.
That's the bad news. The good news is that, unlike electronic breaches, there are much simpler ways to protect yourself from an old fashion mail thief. By taking a few simple steps to safeguard your incoming and outgoing mail, you can encourage the local criminals to look elsewhere.
How Mail Theft Leads to Identity Theft
Once a thief has stolen mail, there are several ways they may use it to steal your identity or to commit other crimes. For example, criminals could take the account information on your credit card bills or other mail from your bank and use it to make new purchases, or even to order new credit cards or checks that they can intercept later.
Another way that criminals can exploit stolen mail is to use the change of address forms included in your credit card statements and other bills. They can then report your credit card as lost or stolen and ask that a new card be mailed to the new address.
How to Avoid Having Your Mail Stolen
The most simple thing that you can do to avoid having your mail stolen is to get a mailbox with a lock on it. Mail theft isn't a highly planned crime, and many thieves will just go to the next house rather than try to break into a locked mailbox and risk being caught. You should also be careful with your outgoing mail. If you are mailing checks or anything else with sensitive personal information, it's more secure to drop it at a post office than to leave it in your mailbox. Better yet, you can usually pay bills online more quickly and securely than mailing them.
Next, you need to be aware of any unusual activity. Watch out for suspicious activity around your neighbor's mailboxes, and ask them to look out for you. If you usually receive mail everyday, but suddenly stop receiving it, you would be right to suspect that someone has fraudulently requested your mail to be forwarded elsewhere. Also, get to know your mail carrier, who can be your first line of defense against mail theft. Finally, always take a moment to request that your mail is held when you are going out of town, even if it's just for a day or two. You can do this online at USPS.gov, and it only takes a few seconds.
A New Way to Keep an Eye on Your Mailbox
The US Postal Service is also now offering a free service where you get digital copies of the mail coming to your address. It's called Informed Delivery and is rolling out now around the country. It's only currently available for letter-size mail, but gives you a grey scale image of the front of the mail that is scheduled to arrive soon. That way you can be on the lookout for important items you're expecting. If you suspect mail is being taken, this may also be a way to confirm if something isn't there by the time you get to grab your mail from your mailbox. Check out details and sign up here.
What to Do If Your Mail Is Stolen
If you have reason to believe that your mail has been stolen, there are a few things that you do. First, file a mail theft complaint with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which is a federal agency that's in charge of securing the country's mail system. Next, you'll want to take steps to monitor your credit for signs of unauthorized activities. This can include contacting the three major consumer credit bureaus to put credit freezes on your accounts, but this step isn't right for everyone. At the very least, you should make an extra effort to scrutinize the charges on your credit card and bank statements, which is always a good idea.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
This article was originally published on September 22, 2017, and has been updated.