Shawnee police detectives say there are now seven fraud cases linked to a local investigation involving checks stolen from mailboxes, and in one of the cases, a local woman's mailbox alarm proved its usefulness in alerting there was a problem.
Police earlier this week sent out a warning to area residents urging caution about placing bills paid by check into their outgoing mail for pickup. That warning followed several reports of check forgery and fraud that all seemed to stem from checks being stolen from mailboxes, with thieves using the account information to make and pass new forged checks.
While many of the victims just recently discovered problems with their accounts, connecting several cases, one Shawnee woman reported her mail stolen the day it happened thanks to her mailbox alarm.
Linda Robinson, who lives in north Shawnee, was one of many affected by the theft of checks in her outgoing mail.
"What a nightmare it was," Robinson said, although she added things could have been much worse.
Robinson credits a mailbox alarm she purchased about seven years ago for alerting her to the theft. The alarm was intended to keep her from making unnecessary trips to retrieve mail, especially in inclimate weather, but in the case of her mail being stolen, it proved quite beneficial.
The alarm, placed inside the mailbox at the street, sends a signal like a doorbell to a receiver in her home, signaling when the mailbox is opened.
When she reported her mail theft last month, all of the current cases into the check theft ring were still unknown.
Robinson said she remembers it was March 14 when her mailbox alarm sounded unusually early. She had placed three outgoing bills, with payments made by check, into the box and raised the red flag for the letter carrier. While the red flag is meant to alert the mail carrier of mail, it's also how the thieves likely chose which mailboxes to hit, police said.
When Robinson heard her mailbox alarm at 8:30 a.m. — several hours ahead of her normal mail delivery — she knew something was wrong.
Knowing her mail had likely been tampered with, she made a report and immediately closed down her checking account, as well as a credit card since one of the payments was to the credit card company, she said.
Despite her quick efforts, the thieves were still able to make a counterfeit check with her account information. They used her account numbers to make a check that was passed at a Midwest City Walgreen's for $170 in merchandise.
As other fraud victims surfaced, some weeks after the thefts occurred, Robinson credits the mailbox alarm for her early warning.
Page 2 of 3 - "It was the best $70 we ever spent," she said, adding it was an unplanned purchase discovered in a catalog. "It saved me…It could've been much worse."
Robinson, who said she had the red flag up on her mailbox, believes "it was an opportune thing" for the thieves.
Shawnee Police Detective Ronnie Wilson said Thursday that what began as a few cases in this check theft ring has increased to seven.
Barbara, a Shawnee resident, said she didn't discover a problem until she received her bank statement.
In her case, the mail thieves got away with a bill to her credit card company, a birthday card for her grandson, which included a check, along with a check for lawn services and a letter written to her 90-year-old mother out of state.
Barbara said it didn't seem right that her mother hadn't received her letter and her grandson was awaiting his birthday money. But the day her bank statement arrived, she tossed it on a counter, at first, but something told her to open it.
"That little voice of intuition was telling me to open it," she said.
When she did, Barbara immediately noticed a fraudulent check with a bogus name had cleared her account. It also had a the wrong bank logo but her account number. She immediately closed her account.
Barbara, concerned about the fraudulent activity, said she was especially worried the thieves got information about personal family members.
"I don't like the idea they now have two family member's addresses," she said. "In this day and time, it made me uncomfortable."
Barbara said this ordeal has made her realize the dangers of paying by check, especially when the payee is unknown.
"When you give a check, you're giving a strange person your routing number and checking account number, address, phone number," she said, adding her banker has encouraged more use of debit cards.
Barbara said she'll not put outgoing mail in the mailbox again, and instead will take it directly to the post office.
"This makes you think about how easy it is for people to get access to everything about you," she said.
She also feels preventing fraudulent activity like this isn't just the responsibility of individuals, but also merchants who could better screen checks.
Detective Wilson said businesses can help combat the problems of forged checks by carefully comparing checks to the ID provided. Wilson said clerks often look at the photo and person, but may not always make sure other information matches.
Because of the investigation in this case, police do have a surveillance photo of a possible suspect cashing these fraudulent checks. The investigation is ongoing.
Page 3 of 3 - Wilson and other Shawnee detective urge residents not to place outgoing mail with checks into their mailboxes at home, and instead suggest taking them to the post office.
And for those who do use the outgoing mail, Wilson said there's no real reason to raise the red flag, which alerts criminals there is mail inside. Wilson said letter carriers, upon delivery of arriving mail, will see the outgoing items and take them anyway.
Joan Reeves of Shawnee is a among those discovered this week that checks she mailed for her March utility bills never made it to their intended destinations. She encourages everyone to check their accounts more often and detectives agree.
"Check them daily," said Shawnee Police Detective Jason Crouch.
While Shawnee police investigate the fraudulent check cashing cases on a local theft, Wilson said this case could have other repercussions for the suspects regarding the mail theft, a federal offense.
Anyone with information about the suspect(s) or forged checks can call Crimestoppers, 405-273-0989.