The suspicious activity began in the summer of 2022. “That was when we first noticed it,” said Karen Connors, a resident of northwest Crozet. “At first you think, well, maybe something just got lost in the mail, but as we started talking to other people in this area and putting our stories together, we realized the breadth and depth of the thefts.” Connors filed a police report with the Albemarle County Police Department (ACPD) in August, and kept the police apprised of additional incidences of mail theft in their area.
“[The officer] was responsive, but he kept saying, ‘We’re building a case, we’re building a case,’ so it sounded like there was something more going on than just me and my mail,” said Connors.
The neighbors on Sealville Road had provided police with more than just a complaint—they had also collected evidence at considerable effort and expense. Surveillance cameras set up near the row of mailboxes by one resident captured video of a pickup truck arriving at midnight and backing up to the boxes. While the driver idled, a second person can be seen in the video moving down the row, pulling everything out of each mailbox.
The camera footage was bolstered by the account of another resident on Mint Springs Road who spotted an attempted mail theft in the daytime by someone in a pickup that matched the description of the Sealville Road truck. The resident followed the truck to a gas station in downtown Crozet, snapped a photo of its license plate, and provided it to police. Despite these pieces of evidence, the ACPD has made no arrests and the case is classified as “suspended,” meaning that “the case is still open but no actionable investigatory leads currently exist,” according to a spokesperson.
“It’s very surprising for such a small, rural town,” said Connors, “and certainly not the environment we anticipated when we moved here. I’ve lived in very big cities, and, yes, of course those kinds of things happened there, but this felt very bizarre for our kind of small town community. One of the reasons we relocated here was to have a safe environment to raise our kids.” Beyond the mailbox thefts, neighbors have lately had to chase off intruders attempting to steal equipment from outbuildings, despite multiple posted “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” signs.
Brian Seal, whose family name graces his own road and others nearby, said that his mail has been stolen and the police have recovered packages addressed to his daughter that had been swiped as well and dumped elsewhere. More damaging, however, were the instances when the thieves have stolen new or re-issued credit and ATM cards from the mailboxes.
“Over the course of about a month, [the thieves] took my credit card out of the mailbox, took my dad’s credit card and another neighbor’s as well,” said Seal. “I could see on my statement that whoever took the cards went down to the BP gas station [on Crozet Avenue] and used it a bunch of times. We called the police and they investigated a little bit, but they didn’t really follow through. The investigator went down to the BP but didn’t look at the [security camera] footage. When he went back a week later, the BP said their footage was on a one-week loop, so it had been recorded over.”
Seal is discouraged that no one has been charged despite the video at the mailboxes, especially since the truck’s recognizable characteristics and license plate have allowed the neighbors to pinpoint the suspected owner’s place of residence in Crozet. “The whole thing has been a real drag because, you know, they had my credit card down there at the BP station, they used it 13 times in one day, they used it three times there at the ATM inside the store,” he said. “Somebody had to have seen that happening.”
Brian Fox, founder of Charlottesville’s Bodo’s Bagels and neighbor to Seal and Connors, said the mail thefts have cost him thousands of dollars from charges made on a stolen credit card. “It’s been really bad,” said Fox. “It’s hard to prove to the credit card company that it was not me who made the charges—some in Charlottesville and some in Waynesboro—and now I’m fighting the collection agency. I’ve had expensive tools stolen from my shed, as well, and that started happening at the exact same time [as the mail thefts], though we’d never had trouble in the more than thirty years I’ve lived here. It’s just gone on and on, and [the police] know who it is. We all do.”
The ACPD denied a FOIA request by the Gazette to view the police report pertaining to the case on the basis of a Virginia law requiring confidentiality for police investigations. The agency’s Public Information Officer, Logan Bogert, said in an emailed statement that, “Our officers investigated the leads that currently exist in this case and there is not sufficient evidence to positively identify any suspect(s) and make any arrest(s). We have also not identified any conclusive evidence linking the two cases [Connors and Seal] that you reference at this time. It is important to note that isolated incidents can occur without necessarily indicating a broader crime trend.”
Bogert added, “Like in all cases, we remain vigilant in our efforts to identify any new leads that may emerge. If and when new evidence is introduced or discovered, the case may become active again. Additionally, we encourage the community to report any suspicious activities promptly. Mail theft and fraud can also be reported to the United State Postal Inspection Service at 1-877-876-2455.”
It’s a Steal
Mail theft is a federal crime—a felony—and a person who steals even one piece of mail can face five years in prison and/or fines up to $250,000, plus the loss of their right to vote or hold public office. The offense includes taking items from a mail carrier or from someone’s mailbox without their permission, intercepting or opening mail intended for someone else, forging another person’s signature on a package or letter, and hiding or destroying mail. Often, mail thieves can be charged with additional crimes such as fraud and identity theft depending on what they choose to do with information gleaned from their haul.
What do thieves do with your mail? They look for cash, checks, gift cards, credit/debit or ATM cards and other financial instruments, along with anything containing personal identifying information like your date of birth. Checks can be “washed”—using chemicals to remove the ink and changing the payee name and amount—and deposited. Thieves can collect bank account information from checks and bank statements, plus social security numbers from tax documents, to access a person’s accounts and activate new credit and ATM cards in their name. A thief can quickly run up purchases and withdrawals before the victim is even aware of the activity. In one instance in Crozet, a thief even called a credit card company to request a limit increase on a stolen card.
The United States Postal Service (USPS) has an Inspection Service that is charged with protecting postal employees and enforcing laws against mail theft. In a 2023 audit, the agency acknowledged a 50% increase in incidents of letter carriers robbed on the job over the prior year, and a 30% increase in thefts from blue collection boxes. Reporting of mail theft by the public climbed by 161% during the pandemic year of 2020-21 and remains high. The audit also noted that there is a serious lack of control over the universal “arrow keys” postal workers use to unlock blue collection boxes and apartment mailbox panels. The keys can access an entire zip code full of boxes, and the audit reported as many as 28% of the keys missing in a review of select facilities.
In addition to filing a police report and updating police when further incidents occurred, Connors submitted complaints to the USPS Investigation Service, but heard nothing back. When the thefts continued and the case was not resolved, Connors decided to take the step of shifting all of their mail delivery to a Charlottesville post office box, which was both an expense and an inconvenience. “I get every package delivered to the P.O. box now, so we’ve basically stopped having mail delivered to our house at all.” But for others, the thefts continue. Connors said she’s talked with neighbors who have seen strangers going through the mailboxes within the last two months.
“The fact that it hasn’t ceased is amazing,” said Connors. “It’s been over 18 months and there’s still people digging through mailboxes. I know nationally there are issues with porch pirating [packages being stolen from front porches]. This is a little bit different in that I feel like mailboxes have been a relatively safe thing.”
“It’s very frustrating,” said Seal. “You know, I feel that it’s not safe for people that live up here to have strangers coming around, creeping around our property, trying to steal from us.”
Ways to Protect Yourself from Mail Theft
- Pick up your mail promptly each day
- Contact USPS and/or the sender immediately about overdue mail
- Never mail cash
- Don’t leave outgoing mail in the box overnight with the flag up. Mail sensitive items like checks or tax returns at the post office
- Try the USPS “Informed Delivery” service, which sends you a daily set of photos of your incoming mail and packages scheduled to arrive soon (Be sure to use the official USPS site to sign up as scam sites do exist.)
- Use the USPS “Hold Mail” or “Hold for PickUp” services if you or your recipient can’t be home to receive a package
- Request signature confirmation for sensitive mail
- File a change of address if you’re moving, and pause delivery if you’re away
- Talk to your neighbors to spot mail theft trends earlier
- Consider a lockable mailbox, which has a slot for delivery but requires a key to open