Fact check: Were keys stolen to Charlotte post office drop boxes?


Fliers warning that some U.S. Postal Service collection boxes are not secure recently appeared in south Charlotte.

The signs, which were not posted by USPS, warned that thieves stole the master keys to all three Postal Service boxes outside Park Road Shopping Center. The fliers were first seen Friday but were gone Tuesday morning.

“The Postal Service did not authorize the posting of signage on our blue collection boxes at Park Road Shopping Center,” USPS wrote in an email to The Charlotte Observer. “Postal Service employees collect mail daily from these boxes. Many of our blue collection boxes have enhanced security measures to prevent unauthorized access.”

Mail theft has worsened in the last five years, according to statistics from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the USPS police force. And while the fliers on Park Road Shopping Center drop-boxes did not reference any specific incident, Charlotte has seen several high-profile stolen mail cases in the last few years.

The Postal Service this week did not say whether there’s been a more recent case of stolen master keys locally.

Gregory Finnican, Atlantic Realty and Development owner, sent The Charlotte Observer photos of the signs. He had an office near the shopping center for more than 30 years. He was spoiled back then, he said. The postman would walk in, hand him the new mail and pick up any outgoing mail. He hardly used the blue drop boxes that populate parking lots and street corners.

Still reluctant to leave mail and checks in unattended boxes, Finnican now walks into post offices himself. But thieves seem to be lurking near the mail’s destination, too.

In the last year, thieves have stolen his mail, including 15 checks, three times. Bank tellers caught two of them — the most recent fraud attempt being last week, but one thief was able to cash $70,000 last year, he said.

Fifth-Third Bank issued a news release last month encouraging customers to consider online banking to avoid check washing — when thieves steal and alter checks.

But online banking is not always realistic, Finnican said. Some people, including him, still prefer paper but don’t trust the boxes.

Mail theft, according to the Postal Service, increased 600% between 2017 and 2020.

Mail theft, according to the Postal Service, increased 600% between 2017 and 2020.

The warning flier called on residents to contact U.S. Rep. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, and ask what the Postal Service is doing about security.

“What can one congressman do? I don’t know,” Finnican said. “But that’s our representative, and the post office is part of the federal system.”

Jackson’s office received a couple calls about the issue and contacted the Postal Service and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, a spokesperson for the congressman said. The Postal Service told the congressman’s office officials are actively looking into the issue. CMPD told the Observer it has passed along the concerns to the postal service.

Finnican has opened three different checking accounts to avoid any more fraudulent charges. He alerted the Postal Service and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, he said, but neither agency took action because Finnican’s banks reimbursed him.

“This is the latest and greatest crime to be involved with,” Finnican said. “There’s no gun, you don’t have to go to a bank.”

Finnican said he hopes agencies, whether federal or local, will do something to thwart the mail theft issue he’s seen worsen over the years.

“It’s like seeing one cockroach,” he said. “You just know there’s more out there.”

Mail theft

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the USPS police force, investigates mail theft across the country.

Mail theft, according to the service, increased 600% between 2017 and 2020. The USPIS made 1,511 arrests that led to 1,263 convictions in 2021, according to its annual report. But in 2021, the service convicted and arrested 38% less people than in 2016.

Last year, three Charlotte residents swindled $3 million by using a stolen mail key to open a multi-state, bank-fraud conspiracy. A judge sentenced Terrell Freeman, the accused mastermind, and his co-conspirators, Joshua Monteith and Yanalise Hodge, in September.

Freeman, in addition to paying $394,000 in restitution, is serving 12 years in prison. Monteith was sentenced to nearly four years and Hodge to two years. All three men will also serve three years of supervised release.

The Observer recently reported three other notable cases:

  • In January 2020, Erik Magana was sentenced to 42 months in prison in connection with a mail-theft ring that stole at least $550,000 from 1,300 victims across the Charlotte region. His home was ankle-deep in his takings, which included credit cards and tickets to the Broadway musical “Hamilton.”

  • In August, Charles Morgan Harrell was sentenced to five years in prison for stealing mail in three states. She was known as the “kindly grandma” who raided mailboxes in south Charlotte.

  • In December, Soheil Akhavan Rezaie, 37, was sentenced to five years in prison for $150,000 in damages from stolen credit cards, forged checks and other bank fraud. The spree started while he was on supervised release from an earlier mail-theft conviction.

Mail theft is a federal crime. USPS asks anyone with information about a crime involving the mail should contact the USPIS hotline at 1-877-876-2455.

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