The U.S. Attorney's Office has arrested two men charged with stealing credit and debit cards from curbside mailboxes in South Florida and using them to blow through more than $200,000.
Ricardo Lee Penn, 47, of Wellington, and Jamaal Willie Williams, 24, of Miami, are charged with conspiracy, mail theft, unauthorized use of access devices and aggravated identity theft.
A third co-defendant, Dorian Jerrell Cawley, 25, also of Wellington, has also been charged in the case but was still being sought late Tuesday.
Curbside mailbox thefts are surprisingly rare, according to the U.S. Postal Inspector's Office in Miramar.
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"It's not rampant, but it does come in waves," said Postal Inspector Blad Rojo. "For the most part we catch these guys. ID theft comes in so many ways, this is just one."
A 2009 study by Javelin Strategy and Research indicates only 3 percent of identity theft is linked to "paper mail," according to the American Bankers Association.
But mailboxes in Wellington, Weston and other affluent areas in South Florida are targeted more often because of the perception that residents receive more financial offers, Rojo said.
Penn, Williams and Cawley are accused of stealing the identities of at least four people. Each faces up to 22 years in prison if convicted on all four counts.
Penn and Williams made their initial appearances in federal court on Tuesday and are being held pending a detention hearing on Monday at 10 a.m.
Federal investigators say between Aug. 1, 2008, and July 23, Penn, Williams and Cawley used the stolen cards to make purchases at area stores and restaurants, get cash advances and buy $500 money orders that they then cashed.
One victim lost $120,000, according to the complaint affidavit filed in the case.
Experts say there are several ways to guard against curbside mailbox theft.
"The main thing is, don't use your curbside mailbox for outgoing mail," said Palm Beach County Consumer Affairs Director Dennis Moore.
Other recommendations include giving your mail to a letter carrier, dropping it in a blue curbside mailbox or at the post office and alerting the Postal Service to any address change or vacation plans.
Also, don't send cash or coins through the mail and call the issuing agency right away if any anticipated check, credit card or other valuable mail arrives late.
Curbside mailboxes are not the only vulnerable targets.
Apartments, condominiums and other housing developments with hive mailboxes in a common area often have a nearby trash can where residents toss their "junk mail," Rojo said.
Post office lobbies also have trash cans where P.O. box-holders drop their unwanted solicitations. But the Postal Service shreds discarded, undeliverable and non-returnable mail considered to have sensitive information.
"A shredder is worth every penny," Rojo said.
Financial information is the most sought-after by identity thieves, according to Rojo.
"The financial industry still uses the mail service a lot [because] mail is most effective [and] the Postal Inspector's office adds a layer of security and protection," Rojo said.
Though rules differ slightly from bank to bank and card to card, in most cases, the victim is not liable for the amount stolen through fraud, said Renee Thompson, spokeswoman for Florida Bankers Association.
But the longer a victim waits to report the loss, the more difficult it will be to recover it, she said. "There are so many ways to monitor accounts, people usually discover something wrong quickly."
Most institutions provide account records online, by telephone, at an ATM, on monthly statements, via texting and through mobile access.
If there's a pattern of financial fraud involving several institutions, Bank of America credit card division spokeswoman Betty Reiss said entangled victims are referred to organizations such as the Identity Theft Assistance Center run by the Financial Services Roundtable, a trade group of financial and law enforcement associations.
Financial institutions also have programs in place to notify customers if irregular transactions take place. Banks will respond by freezing the card and launching an investigation with the appropriate law enforcement agency, if necessary, Reiss said.
If credit card solicitations or cash advance checks are stolen from the mail and used by identity thieves, Florida Bankers Association Fraudnet Director Bret Rock said the banks will take care if it.
"Fraud is fraud, and for the most part, banks will protect consumers against fraud," he said. "The sooner they report it, the better."
Wayne Roustan can be reached at wkroustan@SunSentinel.com or 561-243-6623.