Letter carriers being robbed of master keys in first week on the job, union says

Criminals target letter carriers for their master keys, which unlock mailboxes across a ZIP code. With those keys, they can steal mail, allowing them to wash and rewrite checks or even resell the keys to other criminals.

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Ronald Clark, 37, of Roseland, a letter carrier for about 7 years with the United States Postal Service, delivers mail Monday afternoon in the 3800 block of South Wabash Avenue on the South Side.

Ronald Clark, 37, of Roseland, a letter carrier for about seven years, delivers mail Monday afternoon in the 3800 block of South Wabash Avenue.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Robberies of letter carriers happen so often that some have been attacked during their first week on the job.

The crime wave against letter carriers has been a growing problem for over a year — with robberies tripling in the last three years.

Elise Foster, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers branch in Chicago, said the U.S. Postal Service hasn’t done enough to address it.

“Unfortunately, some of the carriers experienced this Day 3, Day 4 on the job,” she said Monday from her union’s headquarters in Bronzeville.

Criminals target letter carriers for their master keys that unlock mailboxes throughout a ZIP code. With those keys, they can steal mail, allowing them to wash and rewrite checks, or sell the keys to other criminals.

Ronald Clark, 37, of Roseland, a letter carrier for about 7 years with the United States Postal Service, uses his master key, which unlocks mailboxes across the zip code, as he delivers mail Monday in the 3800 block of South Wabash Avenue on the South Side.

Letter carrier Ronald Clark, 37, of Roseland, uses his master key, which unlocks mailboxes throughout a ZIP code, as he delivers mail Monday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“We get these phone calls every day when a robbery happens, and it just is terrible to hear these men and women talk about what they experience,” Foster said. “But something has to be done. ... The Postal Service needs to do more.”

Foster wants the USPS to change mailbox master keys, known as “arrow keys,” to make them less of a target for thieves.

Foster traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to ask for help from lawmakers and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who has been an ally in pressuring USPS to do more.

Nationally, robberies of mail carriers have increased from 67 in 2017 to around 250 last year, according to figures released in November by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to the Sun-Times after a public records request.

Chicago has seen a dramatic increase in robberies of letter carriers, too, from nine in 2017 to at least 23 last year, according to the records.

Earlier this month, Chicago police issued an alert after responding to 12 armed robberies of letter carriers in March and April, believed to be carried about by a crew of three men in ski masks. Those robberies stretched from University Village to the West Side to Rogers Park.

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U.S. Postal Inspection Service

Durbin penned a letter on Monday to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy — his third letter in the last year — to express his mounting frustration with the Postal Service’s response to the rise in crime.

Because of this crime wave, USPS staffing levels have fallen to historic lows, Durbin said, endangering the reliability of the Postal Service for residents who need it for Social Security checks and prescriptions.

“Food deserts are becoming delivery deserts,” Durbin said.

Ronald Clark, 37, of Roseland, a letter carrier for about 7 years with the United States Postal Service, delivers mail Monday afternoon in the 3800 block of South Wabash Avenue on the South Side.

Ronald Clark, 37, of Roseland, a letter carrier for about seven years, delivers mail Monday afternoon in the 3800 block of South Wabash Avenue.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Durbin called on DeJoy to do three things:

  • Advertise federal criminal statutes to deter criminals from targeting letter carriers. Durbin is also sending the letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, asking him to ratchet up prosecution of those crimes, which carry sentences from 10 to 25 years.
  • Upgrade the USPS master keys so they won’t be attractive to criminals. “These old arrow keys may have worked for decades. They don’t work now,” Durbin said.
  • Bring back a crime alert system for letter carriers, which was implemented after the last crime wave against letter carriers in 2011. Durbin said the alert system was dropped without explanation.

Durbin said he hasn’t received a direct response from DeJoy to any of his letters. After Durbin sent his first letter in July, DeJoy said he created a task force to address the violence but hasn’t offered more details.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin discusses crime against letter carriers during a news conference Monday at the headquarters for the National Association of Letter Carriers branch in Chicago on the South Side.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin discusses crime against letter carriers Monday at the headquarters of the National Association of Letter Carriers branch in Chicago.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

In a statement, USPS said it “will review the concerns raised by Sen. Dick Durbin and will respond directly to him.”

USPS added it is implementing a “robust nationwide initiative” to increase the security of blue mailboxes and arrow keys and adding “dual authentication for change of address protocols.”

Luis Rivas Jr., president of the Letter Carrier’s local in Des Plaines, said Monday the attacks have also happened in the suburbs.

He said a letter carrier was approached in the last couple of weeks in Arlington Heights, but the letter carrier screamed for help, and the assailant fled. Another carrier was approached by someone who offered money for his keys, but the carrier declined, he said.

“It’s an ongoing problem that needs to be addressed,” Rivas said. “It’s such a traumatic effect that happens to these individuals when they’re accosted.”

Foster said the victimized letter carriers she represents “are happy and glad that they live to tell the story.”

“They did not have to be attacked on the routes for just simply doing a job,” she said.

Ronald Clark, 37, of Roseland, a letter carrier for about 7 years with the United States Postal Service, hands mail to a resident as makes his deliveries Monday in the 3800 block of South Wabash Avenue on the South Side.

Ronald Clark, 37, a letter carrier for about seven years, hands mail to a resident as he makes his deliveries Monday in the 3800 block of South Wabash Avenue.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ronald Clark, 37, of Roseland, a letter carrier for about 7 years with the United States Postal Service, delivers mail Monday in the 3800 block of South Wabash Avenue on the South Side.

Letter carrier Ronald Clark, 37, delivers mail Monday in the 3800 block of South Wabash Avenue.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Elise Foster, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers branch in Chicago discusses crime against letter carriers during a news conference Monday at the NALC Branch 11 headquarters on the South Side.

Elise Foster, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers branch in Chicago, discusses crime against letter carriers during a news conference Monday at the NALC Branch 11 headquarters.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin looks on as Luis Rivas, Jr., president of the National Association of Letter Carriers branch in Des Plaines, discusses crime against letter carriers during a news conference Monday at the NALC branch in Chicago headquarters on the South Side.

Luis Rivas Jr., president of the National Association of Letter Carriers branch in Des Plaines, discusses crime against letter carriers during a news conference Monday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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