I immediately called my bank to report the fraud. I was told the money would be refunded, but I foolishly did not insist they freeze the account.
Three days later, a new check appeared in our online account. It was for $6,421.11 and was paid to a “Taryell” (NBC News is withholding her last name). It resembled a Bank of America check but was made to look like it belonged to a business entity with my last name: “Prosperity Schapiro LLC,” read the words at the top.
The words on the check were written in computer type except for the signature, which resembled mine but wasn’t exact.
I called the bank again and closed down the account. Once again, the money was returned.
I also filed a report by phone with the postal inspectors. I was given a claim number and told someone would follow up with me. Four months later, I’m still waiting for the follow-up.
When I reported what happened at my local police station, I found out instantly that the problem was well known to Jersey City law enforcement.
“You’re not the only one,” an officer told me. “It’s been happening a lot around here.”
He handed me a piece of paper with a phone number to call to file an official report. I did so the same day and spoke to an operator who took down the details of what happened and told me that I should expect to hear from a detective.
A few hours later, I received a call from a Jersey City police officer. After I explained what happened, she said there was no reason to file a police report if I had already filed one with the Postal Service.
“They would already be handling the investigation,” she said.
My conversations with Bank of America were more revealing. A spokesman said the first check was processed at a Bank of America, either at an ATM or through an electronic deposit. The second was processed at a PNC Bank by one of those same methods.
In the case of the first check, the spokesman said, the fraud was reported so quickly that the bank denied the transaction before the perpetrators made off with the cash. But the Bank of America spokesman said he couldn’t offer any information about the account holder or what action, if any, was being taken.
PNC Bank did not respond to requests for comment.
After I reported the thefts, none of the involved parties — the bank, the postal inspectors, Jersey City police — had given me any indication they were actively trying to track down whoever stole my checks.
So I decided to put in a little effort myself.
There are several women in the U.S. named Diamond Jones who have a middle initial that starts with the letter “A,” but there is only one person in the entire country with the first name Taryell and the last name that appeared on the stolen check, according to online record searches.
She’s 22 and lives in Florida, records show.
Before I reached out to her, I wanted to understand the possible scenarios. Could I be sure that this Taryell was a willing participant in the crime?
The answer, it turns out, is no.
“She could be a victim herself,” a former postal inspector told me.
The criminals involved in mail theft have been known to open bank accounts using stolen identities. In other cases, the crooks have passed money through accounts they gained access to without the account holders knowing. It’s also possible, experts say, that the names on the altered checks were made up entirely.
After eight men were charged with bank fraud and mail theft in 2017 for allegedly pilfering mailboxes in the Bronx, then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara detailed the myriad ways the criminals used the banking system to turn the checks into cash.
“In various iterations of the scheme, those bank accounts have belonged to the mail thieves, to complicit account holders, or to unsuspecting third parties whose debits cards or personal identifying information has been stolen,” Bharara said at the time.
The listed phone numbers for Taryell were no good. I eventually reached her grandmother who lives in the area. She listened patiently as I described what happened to me but wasn’t able to offer much help. The grandma said Taryell had recently changed her number and she didn’t know how to get in touch with her.
“I don’t know how her name ended up on your check,” her grandmother told me, “but I’m glad you got your money back.”
Some of the victims I spoke to were given glancing details about where the checks were cashed and what, if anything, was being done to crack down on the crooks. But others said they were left almost completely in the dark.
“Banks don’t want this to get out,” said Kevin Streff, managing partner at Secure Banking Solutions, a security consulting firm based in South Dakota. “They don’t want anyone to know check fraud is happening on their watch. For $6,000, they sweep it under the rug.”
Streff said the more sophisticated thieves know that if they resist the temptation to massively inflate the amounts on the checks, they have a good chance of steering clear of the authorities and avoiding a significant response by the banks.
“With the level of regulation, law and policy now, these bad guys can stay under certain thresholds and not make it motivating to a bank to really do something about it,” he added.
The question still remained: How could thieves be plucking the mail out of the new and improved collection boxes in the first place?
The inspectors wouldn’t comment. Neither would the Postal Service.
The manufacturer of the mailboxes, the Steel Craft Corp., based in Wisconsin, referred questions to the Postal Service.
“As to the effectiveness and the performance, they’re USPS designed and built to their specifications,” said the company’s president and chief executive officer, Tom Verbos
I spoke to a handful of postal workers in my neighborhood to get their take. The majority wondered aloud whether one of their own may have gone rogue.
“With these new boxes, now it’s impossible to get mail out,” said one mail carrier who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation for speaking to a reporter. “Unless it’s somebody on the inside.”
Another mail carrier told me he was aware of the reports and suggested that the thief or thieves may have gotten their hands on one of the keys that unlock the blue collection boxes.