August 1, 2011

Documents you should never put in Your Mailbox

A lot of people think about incoming mail when they start thinking about mail thievery.  But did you know that outgoing mail could provide just as many opportunities to identity thieves?  And because we put up those bright red flags to let the postman know there are things to pick up, we can also advertise the presence of some potentially juicy mail to thieves.

It’s enough to make you want to visit the post office with all outgoing mail, but that isn’t necessary for some forms of mail.  A personal letter to a friend probably isn’t in much danger.  But these days, we e-mail our friends.  Most of the mail we send out is the official sort of mail: bill payments, requests for new documents (such as, say, a lost or stolen SSN card), and possibly checks that you might be sending out for someone’s birthday or Christmas present.

And because it can take weeks and weeks for you to find out, the outgoing mail absolutely represents a better crime than the incoming mail.  After all, you might notice if your credit card bill never arrives.  You probably won’t notice that your payment never got credited until the credit card agency calls you.  Or, perhaps, the thief will send the check on to give himself just a little more time while he strips the account numbers from your check.  Maybe he’ll wait until your next direct deposit and then take off with your entire paycheck, instead.

The fact that mail theft is a federal crime does little to deter identity thieves.  It’s difficult to catch and it is difficult to prove.  Identity theft itself is difficult to catch and difficult to prove.  Given many police departments don’t even want to take the ID theft reports and given how easy it is for the thieves to use up a credit card and slip off into the night, it’s extremely hard to catch.  A thief can run up a credit card issued in your name in less than 10 minutes.  His goal isn’t to get his heart’s desire.  It’s to get a bunch of merchandise he can re-sell, putting yet another step between him and you.  The sales then give him cold, hard cash to run off of, and if he walks into a retail shop there’s virtually nothing to prove whether you were in there, or whether he was.

But like most crimes, mail theft and identity theft are crimes of opportunity.  You can deter thieves by doing most, if not all, of your bill pay online.  Most companies these days offer that option, and even if they don’t many banks will issue checks directly from their office online.  Since the postman picks those sorts of drops up directly from the corporate office there is far less danger that there will be any kind of problem when you pay your bills that way.

If you don’t feel comfortable doing that then bring all of your mail to the post office, or at least slip them into the little blue mailboxes in town.  That way you know that your outgoing mail is locked up and getting where it is supposed to go.

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