Scripps News Investigates


Thieves are using a popular app to sell stolen mail

A Scripps News investigation finds stolen mailbox keys and personal checks for sale on Telegram.
A person using Telegram.
Posted at 5:33 PM, May 08, 2024

Telegram is a globally popular free messaging app that promises strict privacy for its more than 700 million users.

Encryption and other security features have allowed those in countries with restrictions on free speech to communicate on the platform without fear of being exposed.

But a Scripps News investigation has found that those identity protections have also led criminals to use Telegram to sell stolen mail. In April, Scripps News discovered a growing number of letter carriers getting attacked for their master keys that open blue mailboxes and cluster boxes outside apartments and office complexes. Thieves then use the keys to quickly steal what’s inside.

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Thousands of the proprietary U.S. postal service keys, known as arrow keys, are now missing, according to records Scripps News obtained from the U.S Postal Inspection Service. A report issued by the postal inspection service in March said, "The rise in mail theft and violence against postal workers is exacerbated by trends in technology.” The report named Telegram as one of multiple online platforms where stolen mail and postal keys are ending up for sale.

The Scripps News investigative team joined Telegram and began browsing the app.

It did not take long to discover group chats on the platform, open to anyone, where it appeared postal keys were being sold.

One key going for $1,000 was advertised as able to open mailboxes in New Jersey. A posting for another key claimed it could unlock boxes in “all luxury condominiums” and provided a ZIP code. The photo that accompanied a third key still had the kind of chain attached that letter carriers use to keep the valuable tool secure.

"We see many, many keys,” said David Maimon, director of the Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group at Georgia State University, whose team tracks the market for stolen keys on Telegram. “Telegram facilitates a lot of this activity.”

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The Scripps News investigative team also found what appeared to be stolen mail for sale on the site.

Hundreds of personal, handwritten checks from all over the country, likely stolen out of mailboxes, were selling on Telegram out in the open.

There was a $76 check for Verizon, a check for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and a check made out to the U.S. Treasury that also had a Social Security number visible to anyone who came across the posting in Telegram. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service says people are buying these checks, then often altering the amounts and attempting to cash them for a quick profit.

Two of the checks selling on Telegram were signed by Joseph Pozzuolo, a 73-year-old attorney in Philadelphia, who had no idea they had been intercepted and put up for sale online.

“It's insane because that is my signature,” Pozzuolo said, upon seeing a printout of his checks placed on Telegram. “This bothers the hell out of me.”

Pozzuolo said he began getting calls about missed payments in January.

“I have to spend an hour on the phone yelling at people that the check was mailed,” he said.

Banks also began notifying him of suspicious people trying to cash his checks.

One bank told Pozzuolo that a teller asked a suspicious person trying to cash checks with his name on it to provide identification.

"And they ran out,” Pozzuolo said. “They had our checks.”

Pozzuolo said he eventually realized that dozens of checks he had placed in a mailbox outside his office had been grabbed.

He said he has had to fight to get back the thousands of dollars he lost from all the checks that were successfully cashed by fraudsters.

Until becoming a victim, he had never heard of Telegram.

“It surprises me that someone from the government, whether it's federal, state or local, is not climbing on them and taking control of it,” Pozzuolo said.

It is exceptionally difficult for authorities to identify who is posting illicit items for sale on Telegram, said Steve Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has studied how the app is used all over the world.

"The default idea for Telegram is to really be hands-off and distanced from any kind of government cooperation,” Feldstein said.

Telegram is a private company based in Dubai, making it difficult for U.S. law enforcement to pressure the company to cooperate with investigations, Feldstein said.

The platform has long been known as a hub of illicit activity beyond stolen mailbox keys and checks, he said.

“There are right-wing extremists who practice political violence, terrorist outfits that are on Telegram,” Feldstein said. “It's a natural place where criminal activity potentially can occur.”

When someone signs up for an account, it quickly becomes obvious that the rules on Telegram are geared toward users who want to remain invisible.

“One of the interesting things about Telegram is that when you enter in a phone number, it can be a phone number from a burner phone,” Feldstein said.

The app also lacks a large enough staff to sift through content for illegal activity, he added.

“You would have to build a huge apparatus,” Feldstein said. “Essentially, you would create a completely different company, and that just categorically is not by design what Telegram is.”

Telegram’s press team did not reply to questions sent by Scripps News multiple times.

The queries did trigger an automated response that said, in part, “Telegram is committed to protecting user privacy and human rights such as freedom of speech and assembly."

Peter Rendina, deputy chief inspector at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, said his agents are aware of stolen postal keys and checks being sold on Telegram.

“We're very good at what we do, and we will eventually ferret all the criminals out,” Rendina said.

He said dropping off important mail like checks at a post office or handing it directly to a letter carrier will help prevent thieves from intercepting it.

“When you're receiving your mail, if you know what time your letter carrier usually arrives, go check your box and bring the mail into your residence,” Rendina said. “Don't let it sit out there for hours. Especially don't let it sit out overnight where it's open to criminals.”