Feb. 17, 2004 -- Your mailbox may be the key to your personal fortune, and thieves know it. The Federal Trade Commission estimates 400,000 Americans have had their mail — and their identities — stolen.
"I called the post office and they said that there was mail that was delivered to my home on that Friday," said Barbara, a mail theft victim who wanted her full name withheld.
"So, I contacted the police and made a report."
Barbara then took her inquiry a step further, and decided to do some investigating of her own. She took out her handheld video camera and stationed herself in a window of her home to try to catch the thief stealing her mail on tape.
At first, Barbara's enthusiasm got the better of her, and the video did not turn out as clearly as it could. But later that week she caught the thief in the act again.
"And sure enough, I got her stealing the mail," Barbara said. "It doesn't belong to her. It belongs to me!"
The Federal Trade Commission estimates that 400,000 Americans last year had their mail stolen, and subsequently became the victims of identity theft. That was just a number to Barbara and some other residents of the neighborhoods around Cherry Hill, N.J., until they, too, became the victims of a mail thief.
"This thief was trying to steal my identity," Barbara said. "And I was very angry. And I wanted to get this person, very badly."
A Thief Is Caught
Monica F., the woman who stole Barbara's mail, did indeed get caught. She admitted that between February and June of last year, she stole credit cards, checks and mail from townspeople in and around Cherry Hill, N.J. She said she felt like she had no choice.
"I got desperate and didn't know where to turn," Monica told Good Morning America, speaking out for the first time. "So I did what I did. I just didn't know where to turn."
Police say that Monica cashed stolen checks, withdrew money from victims' bank accounts and, on the very day Terri McCreesh buried her mother, stole and charged almost $400 on McCreesh's credit card."I feel like anybody could come along and take something of ours," McCreesh said. "And we wouldn't know about it. How long before we'd know about it? What could they do?"
Monica apologized for her crimes, saying she did it because her basement had flooded and insurance would not cover the thousands of dollars in damage.
"I know I was wrong," she said crying. "I know I was wrong. I mean, I don't even want to look at the camera. I'm so embarrassed. I knew every time I did it I was wrong. But at that time I was thinking, 'Yeah, this is wrong, I shouldn't do it, but I don't know where else to turn.'"
In June, Monica was fined close to $2,000 and assigned to counseling in lieu of jail time.
The residents of the Cherry Hill neighborhood got off relatively easy, but having your mail and identity stolen can be financially catastrophic.
Crooks can phony up fake drivers' licenses and credit cards to make thousands of dollars worth of purchases posing as you. A mail thief can even steal a check you've written, wash off the handwriting in a chemical bath, and write out a brand new check on your account.
It happened to Miami resident Patricia Read.
"I had written Sears a $13.72 check and that check came up as having been written $730," Read said. "Not my handwriting or anything."
Meanwhile, Monica says she realizes the seriousness of her crimes, and she's sorry.
"It's not worth it. I mean, you can go to jail. Or you could lose your freedom, you could lose friends, you could lose family," she said. "You could, lose your self-respect."
Mailbox Identity Theft Tips
Here are some suggestions to avoid having your ID stolen via your mail:
Don't leave your mail in your home mailbox for the postman to pick up. Instead, take it to the post office. You can also get a locking mailbox, as Barbara did.
Study your bank and credit card statements to make sure all the charges make sense.
If you feel you are a victim of identity theft, call one of the three national credit bureaus immediately and put a fraud alert on your accounts. All you need to do is call one, and the other credit bureaus will be notified automatically. Call one of the following bureaus for help: Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; Experian: 1-888-397-3742; TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289. Or you can go to: http://www.consumer.gov/idtheft/