The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) delivers approximately 130 billion pieces of mail to over 160 million addresses every year and transports approximately 49 percent of all mail sent globally. Because of this, mail delivered by USPS is a target for theft by USPS employees and others. At a recent hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Subcommittee on Government Operations, USPS Assistant Inspector General (IG) for Audits, Melinda Perez, testified that mail theft among USPS employees has increased in recent years, despite public awareness of the issue and attempts at reforms from within USPS. Entities within the legislative and executive branches oversee USPS, but it is clear from recent mail theft trends that oversight has not been effective at curtailing the problem. This blog post will examine the parties that regulate USPS, recent trends in mail theft, and solutions that oversight entities have proposed to reduce the incidence of mail theft.
Legislation, Regulation, and Oversight
Congress created USPS by statute, and it continues regulating USPS through periodic new legislation. USPS is also regulated by a Board of Governors (Board), an Executive Leadership Team (ELT), and the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC). The Board approves USPS policy and legislative positions, as well as annual financial, operating, and capital plans. The ELT is led by the Postmaster General and manages everyday operations. The PRC is an independent regulatory commission that sets regulatory postal rates and reviews USPS service operations. USPS also has an IG who monitors waste, fraud, and abuse within USPS; and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), which monitors mail crime committed by non-postal employees. Mail fraud, the statutory definition of which includes mail theft, is a federal crime punishable by fines and imprisonment regardless of who commits it.
The Postmaster General, Board members, and PRC Commissioners are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Individuals in these positions are subject to congressional scrutiny before starting in their positions. The USPS IG is appointed by the Board and serves a seven-year term, making the USPS IG the only statutory IG to serve a set term. Thus, USPS’s IG is more beholden to USPS than to Congress.
Increase in Mail Theft
On September 29, 2022, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York unsealed a Federal Grand Jury indictment of, among others, three USPS employees for mail fraud. The USPS employees were alleged to have conspired with others outside USPS to steal USPS users’ credit card and personal information to purchase luxury goods and resell them on the Internet. The estimated value of the goods fraudulently purchased was $1.3 million—money stolen directly from American taxpayers.
USPS OIG submits semiannual reports to Congress, in which it reports incidence of various types of mail-related crimes. In its Spring 2022 report, OIG reported 697 mail theft cases closed, and 263 mail theft convictions. See Table 1 below for statistics from prior reporting periods.
|Time Period||Closed Investigation||Criminal Convictions*|
* There may be more convictions than cases closed in a given reporting period because statistics include convictions from cases initiated in prior reporting periods.
This is hardly a rare phenomenon. In addition to mail fraud committed by USPS employees, there is ample opportunity for non-postal employees to commit mail fraud as well. The USPIS submits an annual report to Congress, in which it tracks statistics of various mail-related crimes. In fiscal year (FY) 2021, the USPIS initiated 1,079 mail theft cases, and open cases led to 1,263 convictions.* See Table 2 below for statistics from prior fiscal years.
|Fiscal Year||Cases Initiated||Convictions*|
*There are more convictions in a given year because statistics include convictions from cases initiated in prior fiscal years.
USPS believes that the recent years’ increase in mail theft by USPS employees is linked to the economic uncertainty brought about by the COVID-19 Pandemic, as well as the increase in economic payments and unemployment checks sent through the mail. Additionally, USPIS manages a Postal Police force, and due to a combination of factors, the size of that police force has shrunk by approximately 65 percent since 2002. This means there are fewer enforcement officers available to prevent crimes, and USPIS cannot take on as many cases as it could in prior years.
There are also administrative issues surrounding “arrow keys,” universal keys that USPS employees can use to open any mailbox in a given geographic area—including some areas as large as an entire zip code or city. In a 2020 audit, USPS OIG found that arrow keys were not properly inventoried due to poor recordkeeping, and that the number of arrow keys in circulation was unknown. With an arrow key, anyone could open a USPS mailbox and take the letters inside it. Poor policies around arrow keys contribute to mail theft around the country, including in California, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.
Available data indicates that mail theft has been increasing among USPS employees, and decreasing slightly among non-postal employees. Recommendations for improvement must therefore be targeted. Two recommendations are appropriate here:
(1) USPS should establish better procedures to manage arrow keys and prevent misuse.
(2) Congress should allocate more funds to the Postal Police force so that mail-related crimes can be properly enforced.
Since the 2020 arrow key audit, USPS OIG has launched Operation Secure Arrow, an investigation into arrow key management and the employees who abuse key access. However, it remains unclear whether any efforts are underway to address funding for the Postal Police force.
Congress had the opportunity to revisit postal legislation recently, but in spite of the longstanding and public issues discussed in this blog post, the recently passed Postal Service Reform Act of 2022 does not allocate any funding to theft or fraud prevention. This is unfortunate because legislation is a powerful congressional oversight mechanism.
Public trust lies at the heart of this issue. Assistant IG Perez summarized the problem succinctly: “Sending and receiving mail without fear of it being delayed or stolen is critical to an effective postal system.” Because USPS plays such a prominent role in bringing Americans their most sensitive documents, it is crucial that mail delivery be carried out with the utmost care and discretion befitting the public trust.