LEANDER, Texas (KXAN) — Leander residents are at risk for identity theft and mail fraud, KXAN has learned.
Thieves somehow obtained a US Postal Service ‘master key,’ which was used to unlock hundreds of mailboxes and steal its contents — including letters and packages — according to surveillance video exclusively obtained by KXAN.
“How did anybody get that key to start with?” asked Marc Petrick, who lives at the Crystal Falls HOA in Leander, where two masked men were seen using a key to casually open the bank of mailboxes around 2:30 a.m. March 4.
The duo are seen on video arriving in a Jeep Renegade that was also stolen from a carsharing app that recently expanded into Austin.
“The Free2move vehicle was stolen,” said company spokesperson Dalyce Semko. “Free2move is working with law enforcement on this incident.”
Video captures the men using a single key to open an entire bank of mailboxes in the cluster. Both men appear to know exactly how to open the mailbox bank are captured on video tossing all of the letters and packages into a trash bin, which they also steal, to store their haul.
The HOA says it is in contact with USPS and told residents they believe the “master key” was “stolen.” That key is used to access all cluster mailboxes in the region impacting not just at Crystal Falls HOA but all over Leander, the HOA said.
“The key which was stolen, is the key which is used by the mail carriers to access an entire bank of mailboxes, all at the same time,” wrote Crystal Falls HOA on-site director James Browder.
‘All of the cluster mailboxes in Leander are vulnerable’
“Because their access is non-destructive, it makes it difficult for anyone to know if mail was stolen at other times,” Browder wrote. “It is our understanding; it is USPS protocol the master keys for each postal region are the same. Therefore, all of the cluster mailboxes in Leander are vulnerable.”
Leander police says it is “not aware” of any reports of mail carriers being robbed recently.
The HOA sent its surveillance videos to Leander police, which confirmed it is investigating along with the US Postal Inspection Service. Authorities say it is important that residents check their mail every day — ideally during daylight hours — and be mindful of their surroundings.
Residents can also sign up for USPS informed delivery, which allows you to view and track your mail.
“I’m concerned,” said Petrick. “Because you get a lot of important things in your mail.”
While it’s unclear how or when the key was obtained, Leander residents are now at risk of identity theft at tax time. The stolen mail contains names, addresses and other potentially sensitive information like Social Security numbers — all of which can be used to fraudulently open credit cards and bank accounts or file false tax returns.
KXAN found that has happened before following similar mail thefts.
This type of mail theft isn’t uncommon. KXAN has reported on similar cases in Austin and Cedar Park dating back to at least 2017. Master keys used by first responders have also been stolen to gain access to residential buildings.
The Crystal Falls HOA says it may have been targeted because it’s in an affluent area.
“I would hope the Post Office would do the right thing by replacing these locks,” said Petrick. “Or, find a better system that doesn’t rely on one single key to open entire clusters of mailboxes. Especially in this day and age of identity theft.
Petrick said he found out about the thefts when the HOA, not USPS, alerted residents.
“We’ve heard nothing from the Post Office,” Petrick said.
Asked if USPS should have told residents what happened, Petrick responded: “Absolutely.”
The HOA says it requested USPS change the locks for its mailboxes. The would require changing locks for every cluster mailbox in the city, the HOA notes — something that could potentially cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.
It is unclear why USPS did not notify residents. KXAN reached out to USPS for comment. A spokesperson for the Austin region referred us to the USPIS.
‘Our carriers are robbed, unfortunately, from time to time’
On Friday, the USPIS told KXAN there is a reward of up to $10,000 for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for mail theft. A separate award of up to $50,000 is offered for information that leads to a conviction related to the robbery of a postal service employee.
Suspects in these type of mail theft cases can face federal charges. Sentences of more than five years have been handed down for similar crimes.
US Postal Inspector Tony Robinson with the Houston Division would not say if the locks in Leander will be changed, if that is standard protocol, or why Crystal Falls HOA residents were not notified by USPS about what happened.
“I can’t comment on investigative techniques or corrective actions,” said Robinson. “Because of an ongoing investigation, I can’t speak to normal protocols.”
Mail carriers “are robbed, unfortunately, from time to time,” Robinson said. He urged residents to report any suspicious behavior.
“If anyone notices someone suspicious following letter carriers, or at mailboxes doing something suspicious, they need to notify their local police or postal inspectors,” he said. “If we can stop a crime from happening, it doesn’t have a chance to grow on the preventive side.”
Under federal law, anyone convicted of stealing mail faces five years in prison. If the stolen mail is used for identity theft, conspiracy, bank fraud or other crimes, that can add additional time to a sentence.
Anyone with information about this case is urged to call the US Postal Inspection Service at (877) 876-2455 or visit https://www.uspis.gov/report. There is a reward up to $10,000 for information that leads to a conviction for the mail theft. There is an additional $50,000 reward for information that leads to a conviction related to the robbery of a postal service employee. You can remain anonymous.