Dozens of Mission District residents say mail theft is rife in the neighborhood, with thieves stealing packages and personal information from easily-broken mailboxes and sometimes causing tens of thousands of dollars worth of damages. Officials, they say, have done little to help.
“Since November we’ve had 15 different break-ins to one of our buildings,” said Jennifer Zimmerman, who serves on the board of a homeowner’s association for a group of five buildings with a total of 149 units. The buildings — located on Guerrero between 15th and 16th — have had to shell out more than $100,000 in repairs since then, installing cameras, a gate, and fixing smashed locks and mailboxes.
“It’s such an issue, especially in the immediate neighborhood, and [neighbors] have the same pictures of the same people,” she said. “The frustration is we don’t really know what’s being done about it,” she said.
Mail theft is a federal crime carrying a possible five-year prison sentence and $250,000 fine. Though most of the people interviewed immediately reported mail theft to the San Francisco police, they were told jurisdiction over the mailbox belongs to the United States Postal Service and were instructed to call for a postal inspector instead — a frustration for most.
“The police don’t even want to come help, they say it’s USPS’s fault,” said Bryan Kennedy, who lives in a duplex near 16th and Guerrero and has caught mail thieves on video a half-dozen times. “I’ve attempted to call the police a couple times and they refuse to come out.”
The police department did not return multiple requests for comment.
Kennedy said that when he did call the postal service, a postal inspector came to his house and investigated his case. The only immediate aid, however, was two red stickers Kennedy placed on the mail slots reading “Call this number to report mail theft.”
“I was glad that he came out, and he seemed to genuinely want to help,” said Kennedy. “But in general it seems like he’s either too busy or there’s not a lot he can do, which is frustrating because this is a pretty big issue, especially if we’re talking about credit theft.”
Jeff Fitch, a spokesperson with the Postal Inspection Service — the law enforcement arm of the postal service — said mail theft is taken seriously by the agency but that it takes time to build up a criminal case against offenders.
“Some people expect minute-by-minute updates, and many of these cases we work on, sometimes it takes several months to get these things together,” he said.
Victims should contact a postal inspector if there’s suspicious activity on their accounts, Fitch said, which can sometimes be weeks after the initial mail theft. Thieves are often caught on camera using stolen finance information, an invaluable lead for an inspector.
Erin Bream, who is a renter in a 12-unit building near 17th and Dolores, said she first knew her mail had been stolen while waiting for a credit card that never came.
“I had requested a replacement credit card, and it didn’t arrive, didn’t arrive, didn’t arrive, and then I called [the bank] and they said ‘No, no, you have them, you’ve been transacting on them, thousands of dollars,’” Bream said. She cancelled her card, placed a credit freeze on her accounts, and put a hold on her mail — a temporary fix to a persistent problem.
“It’s been once a week, starting probably in late November,” Bream said. “And now it’s happening sometimes a couple times a week. It’s one of those things that’s tough because in a lot of cases we didn’t know it was a problem until it was a really big problem.”
Two of her neighbors have had their identification stolen, and another had “a bunch of credit card accounts opened” without her knowledge. They’ve all since become more savvy and placed freezes on their bank accounts and holds on mail delivery — meaning they must go to the post office and pick up their letters in bunches — but are not satisfied with the defensive approach.
“All of the things that we’re doing are risk mitigation and responding to the problem, rather than getting at the root of the problem,” Bream said.
Mail theft affects renters and owners differently. While Zimmerman has been able to raise funds to address the issue with additional security and expensive repairs, Bream is stuck negotiation with her landlord, the only one who can make changes to the building’s mail system.
He has not been responsive to renters’ complaints, Bream said, but just this week sent a message saying he will install a more secure mailbox. She does not know if it will work, and summarized her feelings with the following: “Extreme frustration and a sense of helplessness.”
Mail theft has increased in the Mission District and San Francisco generally — along with other areas of Northern California — though Fitch had no numbers quantifying that increase. He said only that the agency was concerned about “some individuals and small groups” being “more aggressive” lately.
“It’s not a large increase, but it’s enough,” Fitch said. The rise in mail thievery should not dissuade reporting of the crime, however, though victims might not get immediate, individual attention.
“These are criminal cases that must be put together extremely carefully, sometimes it takes a year,” he said. “That shouldn’t stop people from reporting that information.”