Austin has seen an increase in mailbox break-ins across the city over the past year, with eight happening in the last week in North Austin’s Great Hills neighborhood, U.S. postal service officials said.
A U.S. Postal Service Inspection Service spokesman said postal officials plan to upgrade the neighborhood cluster boxes to safer, stronger ones, but break-ins are happening faster than the boxes can be replaced.
Postal inspectors say they have seen an increase in reports of break-ins, with the most coming from North Austin and South Austin neighborhoods. Thieves typically use screwdrivers, crowbars and hammers to pry the boxes open, said Mike Sullivan, a Postal Inspection Service spokesman.
“We certainly don’t condone mail theft,” Sullivan said. “It erases the work of the postal service employees and creates an inconvenience and hassle for the customers.”
In October, the Postal Inspection Service – the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Postal Service – noticed a spike in overall mail thefts, but that the number has plateaued since then, he said.
Before that, mail theft wasn’t much of an issue, Sullivan said, as it was rare to even have five break-ins every three months. Now, in a single incident, five mailboxes might be broken into, and the incidents are happening more frequently, he said.
The reason for the increase in break-ins is unclear, he said.
“We’re not sure if the attacks are due to the growth in the city or the new folks moving into town; we really don’t know,” Sullivan said.
Investigators, though, have linked some of the break-ins to meth users, Sullivan said, who might be looking for quick money in the form of cash, checks or gift cards.
In June, Kyle police charged a couple after officers discovered a cache of stolen mail that contained $300,000 in stolen checks and credit cards destined for addresses across Central Texas in their pickup. Joshua McGlasson, 30, and Melissa Moncada, 27, were charged with possessing methamphetamine, fraudulent use of identification and possession of identifying information.
Postal inspectors work closely with local law enforcement agencies because suspected mail thieves often get discovered only because evidence of the theft turned up as part of another criminal investigation, an Austin Police Department spokesperson said.
In 2016, the Postal Inspection Service initiated 1,348 mail theft cases and made 2,437 arrests nationally, resulting in 2,039 convictions, according to Postal Inspection Service data.
Stealing mail is a federal crime, but Sullivan said his agency typically chooses to prosecute at the state level because it allows for stronger sentences. But in most cases in Austin, the money lost is no more than a few dollars, so taking the case to the federal level “would not be an effective use of taxpayers’ money,” he said.
Instead, postal inspectors focus their resources on fixing or replacing mailboxes, Sullivan said. But postal officials are struggling to replace broken boxes at the same rate as they are being broken into, he said. It takes three to five days to replace a large mailbox, and that’s if they’re in supply, he said.
Austin has 12,000 cluster mailboxes but replacing one with a newer box made of stronger materials and tougher locks costs $750 plus labor, he said.
“We want to deliver people their mail,” Sullivan said. However, “if it can’t be securely delivered, it’s held at the post office, which adds work for the post office and is inconvenient for everyone.”
Residents affected by the break-ins have to pick up their mail at the post office — and that comes with its own headaches.
“I just want my mailbox back,” said David Swofford, whose Dominion of Great Hills neighborhood mailbox was vandalized last week. “It’s frustrating to go to the post office after three or four days only for them to say, ‘Sorry, we haven’t had time to sort it.’”
Swofford said since his mailbox was broken into, he has heard from neighbors that other boxes in the neighborhood have also been hit.
One of his Dominion of Great Hills neighbors, Manish Mehtah, said his mailbox was broken into last week, just as he was expecting his passport to arrive ahead of a business trip to China.
“It’s painful and stressful,” Mehtah said. “I’m traveling abroad … and I don’t know if I have to apply for a new passport or if someone has it.”