When I described to my wife the nature of the story I’m about to tell you about, I called it a “phenomenon,” to which she responded asking whether or not it was too strong a word to describe what sounds like a truly bizarre form of theft.
But as it turns out, knuckleheads using strong glue and string to pull letters (or, let’s be honest, checks) out of mailboxes is a phenomenon called “mail fishing,” and it’s a phenomenon that highlights the weaknesses of a system that is already struggling to keep up with the modern day.
The trend, which often involves the use of the kind of glues used for mouse and insect traps, is a very analog form of theft, taking advantage of the fact that public mailboxes, which are generally not closely monitored, have fairly weak security. Like a vending machine, it’s often technically possible, if incredibly difficult, to pull something out of an enclosed container.
But unlike a vending machine, the stuff getting thrown into mailboxes is generally a lot more valuable—think birthday cards, rent checks, and the like. That means that criminal elements have a good reason to organize around mailboxes that two decades ago might have been far more diverse in makeup, with more actual letters and fewer checks. Now, the odds that you're sending out an honest-to-God letter are lower than ever—and that means those blue mailboxes are sitting targets for inventive thieves.
The mail fishing trend, per NorthJersey.com, is said to have started in the Bronx, slowly making it outside of New York City. In Paterson, New Jersey, up to $100,000 in checks were stolen and at least two people had been arrested in the thefts, which often also involve “check washing,” a form of money laundering where a third party modifies a check, then cashes it. Per PIX 11, the process is particularly nefarious because people with cashed checks often don’t realize their money was stolen until much later.
And it’s not just limited to the East Coast. In Denver, a mail fishing device was uncovered from a mailbox back in February. A postal official told the Denver Post that the best way for folks to avoid these kinds of issues is to drop their mail off directly at a post office instead of in a blue box.
“We’re just reminding people that the most secure way to send outgoing mail is to drop it at the post office, inside the office,” postal inspector Eric Manuel told the outlet. “That stands whatever time of year, no matter what criminals we’re following.”
The fact that postal inspectors exist, of course, points to the fact that theft has always been a problem for the U.S. Postal Service, but it’s still fascinating to see an analog problem in a digital era. Checks are, at this point, old technology. Could stuff like mail fishing further quicken our move towards other options, like Venmo?
Trump is giving the U.S. Postal Service a lot of hell for shipping Amazon’s products, but being unable to secure the boxes that people use for perfectly normal reasons? That’s an existential threat.
Strong glue could be a bigger danger to the traditional letter than anything Amazon’s ever done.