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Meth Addicts' Other Habit: Mail Theft

How many times have you done this…(drop mail in blue box). Or this (put mail in box and raise flag) Or maybe just left your mail in the box an extra day or two. Well, you may want to think twice abou

How many times have you done this…(drop mail in blue box). Or this (put mail in box and raise flag) Or maybe just left your mail in the box an extra day or two. Well, you may want to think twice about how you send and receive your mail.

Lisa: When I first started it was any mailbox in front of the house that had mail in it. Then it went to mailboxes that were along the curbs, where you didn’t have to get out of your car you would just, normally they would have eight in a row, I would get all those mails and then I started targeting post offices.

Lisa was a methamphetamine user for more than 10 years. She supported her habit by becoming an expert at stealing mail, stealing identities.

Lisa: I would hit Paradise Hills, Bonita, Linda Vista Carlsbad, Poway, Mira Mesa, you know Chula Vista National City, all of them.

Drug use and crime have long been partners. In San Diego County, the illegal drug of choice, after marijuana, is methamphetamine.

A 2006 SANDAG study found more than two thirds of people arrested in the county tested positive for at least one drug -- almost 90 percent had two drugs in their system and the most common combination – marijuana and methamphetamine.

Faryon: Now, methamphetamine users are cultivating a whole new crime wave….Paper Crime.  They’re stealing mail from neighborhood mailboxes, post offices, even the trash. Stolen mail has become the new currency in the drug world. And just wait until you hear how easy it is to get.

Damon Mosler - Chief of Narcotics Division Deputy DA: Everyday citizens who have no idea that somebody high on meth is stealing their mail and using it to trade for more drugs.

Deputy DA Damon Mosler learned for himself how meth users were using stolen mail to assume identities when he met this woman. Lisa was facing three years in prison for several fraud charges this past April when Mosler offered her a deal.

Damon: so you’re doing this interview in exchange for not going to prison.

Instead of going to jail, Lisa agreed to tell police all her secrets, how she stole mail and identities.

Mosler: We conducted an interview with Lisa in front of a lot of law enforcement and I actually heard a gasp from some of the officers when they heard how vulnerable they could be.

Lisa: Post offices they’re very easy because you don’t have to get out of your car once again. But it involves you making a trap. What you do is take a kids book . . .

This was most shocking to police. Lisa used her primitive, home made trap to fish out piles of mail from blue boxes in front of post offices at night. It took her only minutes to drive away with stacks of mail.

Some of her biggest finds were in suburban mailboxes like these.

Lisa: Mira Mesa and Poway were the best neighborhoods, Scripps Poway. Because bigger houses, not only that, that’s where a lot of the doctors and high class people live and they don’t check their mail. When I would go and pull their mail, I would have to go into their mailboxes three times to get all their mail out, either they’re always gone or they just don’t check their mail and those are the best mail boxes to target.

Lisa was able to steal thousands in a single day writing false checks. All she needed was a bank account number or a cancelled check. And she found many in the piles of mail she stole. It didn’t matter whether there was any money on the account -- she knew it would take days before the checks started to bounce.

Lisa: A lot of people would steal mail and give it the connects because the connects started seeing that person’s making this much money just doing paper, well here go out and grab me some mail and here’s a 20, it was easier for them.

Faryon: So mail was like money, in the drug world, mail was money?

Lisa: Mail is money.

Faryon: How’d you do all that, while you’re high?

Lisa: Well that’s the whole thing, the meth kept me awake. The meth kept me thinking okay how can I better this or how can I do this or how can I do that. Meth is what kept me going and going and going.

Mosler: Some of it’s the nature of what happens when people are on methamphetamine. People are up for many hours, they’re up for many days sometimes and they need things to occupy their time to generate revenue as well.

A Federal Trade Commission Survey released last month says more than 8 million Americans have been victims of identity theft.  More than half the victims didn’t know how their information was stolen, only two percent knew for sure it was through the mail.

Elizabeth: My mail was disappearing and I started getting nervous about that and some important things were missing.

Elizabeth is a San Diego business owner who’s had her identity stolen twice. The second time, postal inspectors tracked the crime to a meth addict.

Elizabeth: She messed up my stuff, she moved a lot my accounts to her address, like my cable company to her address, I don’t know why, I guess its just a phone call sometimes, people can change those things, And I just found out she tried to change my address with the IRS which was really shocking and upsetting.

Elizabeth: I felt very disoriented and kind of panicky about what’s happening and where is it happening because all these things these paper crimes, you can’t see them, you can’t come into your house and say, oh my chairs missing, its where’s that statement and , so its very disorienting like that, what’s the extent of it what did she get.” 8:16

Hilary Smith: Look, the post office moves over 200 billion pieces of mail and it’s a very small percentage of pieces of mail that are actually stolen by these types of criminals. I think that the mail is one of the safest ways to transmit your personal correspondences, your personal information, your financial information. Number one because you have postal inspectors, an entire law enforcement agency devoted to combating this type of crime and you have very specific federal laws that are there to help protect the customers.

Postal inspectors did track down the woman accused of stealing Elizabeth’s mail. But she has since skipped bail. A lot of people who are victims of this kind of crime often don’t report it to police. The bank or credit card company usually cancel the unauthorized charges. There are things you can do to avoid being a victim -- beginning with never, never do this. (put mail in box and lift red flag)

If you are dropping your mail in a blue box, do it before the last collection time. Or drop it inside the post office instead. Buy a mailbox with a lock, instead of relying on one like this. Write your checks in a felt tip pen instead of ink…according to Lisa, it’s more difficult to wash that check and re-use it.

Hilary Smith: Treat your mail as important as it is, just like you would treat your wallet or your purse or your car keys.

Elizabeth: Pay attention, if your getting less mail, I’m not the kind of person who looks at my stuff every month, but now I’m a little more attentive.

Lisa: Your identity, that’s all you got is your identity, if someone gets a hold of it we can do so much damage it’s amazing. You can’t imagine that with just one piece of information I can do so much damage to you. And I’ll keep hitting your mail box until I get everything, that’s the mentality I had when I was doing mail.

Faryon: You told me too, you didn’t feel bad when you were doing it. You said, didn’t have feelings.

Lisa: I didn’t. I had no feelings what- so ever. When I’m on meth. Meth, it takes away any feelings you might have. It makes you not care about anything. You don’t care going to jail, you don’t care about your kids, you don’t care about your family, nothing, you have a cold heart.

Lisa: I’m so smart . .

Lisa has been off meth since April. She wants to find a job with a security company to teach them how to fight fraud. But as a convicted felon, she is finding it difficult to find work.