‘Piles of mail,’ stolen IDs and key-making materials found in downtown Chicago hotel room

Investigators are working with the U.S. Postal Inspectors Service, which investigates mail fraud and a practice called check washing.

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Mail_Theft_warning_Harwood_Hts_Post_Office.jpg

A sign warning U.S. Postal Service customers of the potential for mail theft is posted outside the Harwood Heights Post Office, 7101 W. Gunnison St.

Miriam Di Nunzio/Sun-Times

Evidence of a potential large-scale mail fraud operation was recovered at a downtown hotel Tuesday, sparking a joint investigation by Chicago police and federal authorities.

Police have released limited information about the probe, saying only that officers responded early Tuesday to an empty hotel room in the 200 block of North Wabash Avenue and “discovered various electronic items and … postal property.”

Police radio traffic included a call of a “deceptive practice in progress” at the Virgin Hotel, 203 N. Wabash Ave. A caller had asked for the removal of two men from a room on the 18th floor, where there were “a lot of fraudulent checks,” credit cards and a money order.

Early Tuesday, the radio traffic shows an officer requested someone to fingerprint, photograph and conduct DNA analysis on a range of evidence in the same room: stolen ID cards, computer equipment, “multiple piles of mail” and “mailbox key-cutting material.”

No one has been taken into custody, a police spokesperson said.

Detectives are now working the case with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Agency spokesman Spencer Block said postal inspectors are helping the police determine who “possessed postal property at that downtown hotel room, how they came into [their] possession, and what specific criminal activity they may have used it for.”

The inspection service investigates mail fraud and a scheme known as check washing that exploded during the pandemic.

In most check washing cases, thieves steal checks from mailboxes and erase the ink using household chemicals. They then rewrite a check to a different person and cash it at an ATM or currency exchange.

Last October, the Sun-Times reported that check fraud cases in Illinois were surging and had more than doubled from five years earlier. However, at the time, the inspection service declined to share statistics about check washing, as well as armed robberies of letter carriers.

Elise Foster, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers Chicago, said multiple mail carriers have been robbed of master keys that can open mailboxes on streets and in lobbies within an entire ZIP code.

A robbery can leave a postal employee “traumatized” and in fear of doing their job, Foster said. “All that other stuff can be replaced but the life,” she said of property being stolen.

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