A new year gift of identity theft

Roberta Miner is careful about her finances. The 15-year Capitol Hill resident doesn't leave bank statements or bill receipts exposed in the trash. She mails bills at a post office or post box. She doesn't disclose her social security number carelessly.

Yet Miner, like so many others, is a victim of identity theft. And much of her time in this new year has been spent dealing with a situation she only barely discovered.

Miner noticed that something was amiss after she returned from a short Christmas break. Opening her bank statement toward the end of last year, she noticed an unusual charge.

"I called my bank," she said. "They said I had made a payment to Qwest over the phone for my phone bill."

But she hadn't. Someone had used her account to pay his phone bill. Qwest told her to fill out a fraud application. She then called her bank, changed her checking and credit card accounts and set about trying to learn more about the incident.

After researching all the charges to her recent statement and examining the checks that had cleared her account legitimately, Miner determined that the stolen check was one of two $10 checks she mailed out to charitable organizations at the end of the year. Those envelopes, she said, were placed in the outgoing mail basket in her building's mail room.

Her bank also told her the name of a person, possibly fake, who had used her checking account to pay his phone bill. Not only that, they gave her that man's phone number.

Miner called the police, filed a police report and was told to file a report with the Post Office.

Miner subsequently learned she was not the only tenant in her building to have had problems with their mail. The next day Miner saw that a box from Amazon.com had been opened and tossed away in the mailroom. She thought someone was just being a slob, but later learned that another tenant's recent software purchase from the on-line retailer had been stolen.

Three months before the incident Miner had moved into The Whitworth Apartments near 15th Avenue East. The build-ing was built in 1926, has 53 apartments and considerable charm. There are many nooks and crannies; there's even an old fall-out shelter.

Apartment manager Penni Colley had seen evidence of mail tampering just prior to Miner's theft. She walked into an unsecured store room in the basement and noticed it was disheveled. Among the scattered items, in the form of opened boxed and discarded envelopes, were pieces of mail from several residents.

In the past, Colley said, mail problems have been the result of letter carriers leaving packages at the door, a practice she has brought to the attention of the building's regular carrier, whom she described as being conscientious. But substitute carriers may not be as aware of the problem or show as much concern.

The mailroom at the Whitworth has secured boxes for average-sized envelopes. But larger envelopes, and certainly packages, are left out in the open. Also problematic: outgoing mail, which is commonly placed in a basket for pickup by the postal carrier. Colley has since posted a warning in the mail room advising residents not to leave their outgoing mail exposed.

"We've secured as many places as possible," said Colley. She's also looked into finding larger boxes and a more secure place for the outgoing mail.

The likelihood is that someone entered the building, took Miner's outgoing mail and went through other boxes. The suspect may have had a key to the secure building or simply followed someone inside. The locks have been changed since the incidents.

As far as Colley knows there has not been a recurrence of mail theft at the Whitworth.

No response

For Miner, the frustration over having her identity stolen was compounded by the response she received from the police and the post office. Despite having a name and telephone number of a possible suspect, the police detective who took her call wasn't interested in pursuing the matter.

"The police told me that the only thing they can do is pass it along to the post office," Miner said. "She said they need to catch someone in person before they'll do anything."

As for the post office, such calls are taken by a 1-800 number; it's very difficult, Miner said, to talk to someone in person about an incident of mail fraud. But eventually a form was sent to her. Miner dutifully filled it out and sent it back. Weeks later she received a call from the post office and was told that the fraud unit was really backed up.

"I find it really galling the way the police department said that they don't really follow a small case like this. There have been several mail thefts in this building - seems like a big problem they should be looking into. The postman told me there have been many problems with stolen mail in these older buildings," she said. "I had a name and number of a possible suspect. It's a viable lead they are ignoring. But no one seems interested in this."

Miner said that her bank suggested that she call the suspect herself. Not surprisingly, she feels this is the police's job.

She also admits she was lucky. The incident has been a major annoyance, but not much more. A check was cashed, but the amount was less than $100, and her bank credited her the amount; Miner lost no money in the experience. But she lost a great deal of time, as well as a little faith.

"I thought I was being careful," she said. "It never occurred to me that someone would steal checks from an envelope made out to a charity."

Doug Schwartz is the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. He can be reached at editor@capitolhilltimes.com or 461-1308.

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