Through rain, sleet or snow, especially in the dead of night, they carry what appear to be U.S. postal keys, but they are not postal carriers. They are thieves using real and counterfeit keys to steal mail and people’s identities.
For the last year and a half, Chicago Police Sgt. Patrick Barker said the 19th police district has received calls about stolen mail almost every day. The 19th District covers Lincoln Square, Uptown, Sheridan Park, North Center, Ravenswood, Lakeview, Wrigleyville, Boystown, Roscoe Village, Southport Corridor, Sheffield & DePaul and Lincoln Park neighborhoods.
"It’s so easy to commit. Most of the time, the victim is unaware that anything has even happened," said Sgt. Barker. "We find out about it when somebody has been notified that they were a victim of a credit card fraud or the bank has alerted them that they are missing money."
Nearing retirement after 30 years of service, Sgt. Baker said, "What they are doing is simple. There is no technology involved at all. They use a pry tool or facsimile key that allows them to get into these places and use the same key to get into everyone's mailboxes so they're not going to homes but they're going to condo and apartment buildings because there's a large bank of mailboxes for them to utilize and take everything."
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Recently, Chicago Police issued community alerts after several high-rise buildings in Ravenswood, Lincoln Park, Uptown and Lincoln Square were hit by mail and package thieves. The alert described the offenders as two men and two women working as a team.
Sgt. Barker said many of the burglary teams are co-ed with the women referred to as joggers because they pose as runners during the day but are actually casing apartment buildings for packages and mail to steal at night.
Aliyah Massari was pulled over by Chicago police in February 2020 in the West Loop for a routine traffic stop. Chicago police reports indicate that Massari was in possession of two master postal keys, seven other sets of mail keys and a bunch of mail with social security, credit and debit cards. Massari is in custody and due back in August on a burglary charge. Massari has pleaded not guilty.
NBC 5 Investigates first exposed thieves using stolen US master postal keys prior to COVID-19 back in February 2020. Guy Spinello, then the North Central Director of Associated Locksmiths of America, showed us then how easy postal keys are to make or copy.
"No one wants to step forward because they know they have a serious problem and they don’t want to admit it," said Spinello.
In August 2020, the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Postal Service released an audit report on Arrow Key Management Controls. The report's main findings found Postal Management controls over master postal keys, known as arrow keys, were ineffective.
The report also disclosed that the number of arrow keys in circulation is unknown and keys are not adequately reported lost or stolen. In addition, the postal service did not restrict the number of replacement keys so it's unclear how many keys are floating around in major cities, including Chicago.
"The inspection service and our postal service partners are putting measures into place to limit the ability for criminals to get these keys," said Spencer Block, a postal inspector in Chicago.
We asked what his message was to thieves with these keys.
"We know you may be out there and if you commit crimes, you’re gonna be held responsible for that. Federal crimes are not something to sneeze at. This isn’t a slap on the wrist. This is serious federal time," Postal Inspector Block added.
One case in point is DeAngelo Ashford. Chicago police say Ashford appeared to be wearing a postal jacket and had a real postal key that he tried to use at a South Loop building in February 2020, but the feds had apparently set a trap. While Block did not get into the specifics of the tools used in the sting operation, Ashford’s key got stuck in the lock. As he struggled to pry it free, residents called Chicago police.
"Well, that key apparently was very valuable to him, so he contacted a locksmith to help him retrieve the key," said Chicago Police Detective Robert Rose. "That’s what drew the attention. Somebody happened to see two individuals digging at this box trying to retrieve something and they thought something was suspicious about it and called police."
The police arrived soon after the locksmith. Ashford was busted and pleaded guilty to possession of a stolen postal key. It's a federal offense that carries up to 10 years in prison. He'll be sentenced in August.
"He messed up. His arrogance got to him," said Postal Inspector Block.
How to Protect Yourself from Mail Theft
Chicago police said residents can protect themselves by taking some simple precautionary steps. Residents should empty their mail and pick up packages every day. Many mail theft victims don’t realize their identity was stolen until bogus charges turn up weeks later.
Postal Inspector Block recommends that people sign up for a free postal service called informed delivery.
"It transmits an email every morning saying you’re getting this piece of mail or that piece so that way you know what to expect when you come home."
If it's not in your mailbox call the postal service to report it before you get the bill for someone else's shopping spree, he said.