Neighbors around Westbrae discuss missing mail on April 24, 2023. Residents on Neilson, Tevlin and Watkins streets and Peralta Avenue said that in February, their mail would just stop showing up, in some instances for days at a time. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Mail thieves and an understaffed U.S. Postal Service are leaving Berkeleyans stewing over missed and stolen mail.

In March, when city police presented crime stats for 2022, the department’s civilian analyst said there was an ongoing citywide trend of residential burglaries in which thieves sought mail and packages.

“This also contributed to an increase in identity theft, with the financial and other personal information that is obtained during the mail theft,” the analyst, Rita De Lucchi, said at the time.

At University Terrace, a UC Berkeley faculty condominium complex on Jefferson Avenue in Central Berkeley, residents said mail started going missing at least as early as December 2022.

Jeff Fitch, a postal inspector and public information officer for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the postal service’s law enforcement arm, confirmed there have been cases of mail theft in Berkeley going back at least that far, and continuing even through April.

Recently, a thief or thieves stole mail right out of a postal service vehicle. In nearby Oakland, postal service officials have warned that mail carriers are being robbed and mailboxes burglarized.

“We didn’t realize that we probably had missing mail,” said David Beausoleil, a University Terrace tenant.

But then a Christmas card from a relative that sends them reliably never came, and a vehicle registration renewal never showed up.

Worried that someone might be able to access their tax documents, Beausoleil and his husband bought a post office box for a year. It bought them security, but with that came the inconvenience of only having access to their mail at the hours when post offices are open.

Tanya Paul and Deepak Jimmy, who also live in University Terrace, didn’t notice anything amiss until they came home from a two-week vacation to find nary a letter in their mailbox.

Now we’re running out to get the mail, we’re hypersensitive about what mail is coming.

Tanya Paul, University Terrace resident

There was “no sign of a break-in, no sign of forced theft, it was like the mailman had never been there,” Paul said.

Among their missing items was a package with some clothing, which did not cause them too much grief. But there was also a document for Jimmy from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which had some of his personal information on it.

The missing items made them “worried and a little paranoid,” Paul said. “Now we’re running out to get the mail, we’re hypersensitive about what mail is coming.”

They said they would be putting a hold on their mail the next time they went traveling.

At University Terrace, residents believe someone or some group had gotten hold of the USPS key that opens their kiosks, or at least a facsimile of one.

Fitch said that thieves have operated in just that way in the area in the past. Possession of a USPS key by an unauthorized person, or possession of a counterfeit USPS key by anyone, is a federal offense, he said.

It is unclear just how many mailboxes or slots one such key can open. Meiko Patton, a spokesperson for the postal service, said that information is proprietary.

Patton said that “all mail is being delivered to 2100 Jefferson,” the address of University Terrace. University police did not respond to messages requesting more information.

Months of missing mail

Unlike University Terrace, where the mailboxes are consolidated in kiosks, single-family homes around Westbrae, near the southeastern corner of Albany, typically have mail slots or boxes built into their doors, porches or other parts of the structures.

Residents on Neilson, Tevlin and Watkins streets and Peralta Avenue said that in February, their mail would just stop showing up, in some instances for days at a time.

Harry and Karen Brass’s mail slot, as seen from their garage. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Harry Brass, who lives on Tevlin, tried getting answers from the postal service at least as early as late February. When that didn’t work, he tried to get local television news affiliates to look into the matter. Residents in the neighborhood still don’t know for sure what happened to their mail, although there are rumors of days’ worth of mail turning up in a backyard.

Brass said the problems started in earnest after the regular mail carrier who delivered to the neighborhood retired.

In March, a retirement benefits check never arrived. Weeks later, another, reissued, check also went missing, along with a bill.

“Nothing came in and I was just furious,” Brass said.

David P. Miller, who lives just over the border in Albany, said his wife never received a check from an old job to roll her retirement savings into a new account.

That check, and the two checks that were supposed to go to Brass, were never cashed, which leads the residents there to believe that their mail isn’t being stolen, just never delivered.

Miller, who works from home and pays attention to the goings-on on his street, said it was clear to him nobody was stealing anything out of residents’ mailboxes. “It’s just not getting delivered,” Miller said.

Dorothea Dorenz and Bradley Rudolph chat on Tevlin Street. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

But even if there’s nobody stealing the mail away from mail carriers or postal service vehicles, the circumstances could constitute a crime, Fitch said.

Another neighborhood resident, Claire Nail, had someone try to open a Kohl’s credit card in her name after a tax document went missing, but that was approximately two years ago.

“We’ve had utility bills that never came for a month,” another neighbor, Bradley Rudolph, said. “All of a sudden I get a bill for two months.”

Some residents have moved to online payments. Brass opted to have his retirement benefits deposited directly.

But for those who vote by mail, of which there are many in the neighborhood, the disappearing mail and uncertainty as to the cause make them anxious.

“We’re all voting by mail, and so we really have to worry about that, that we’re not going to get our ballots in time and we’re not going to be able to get them back in time,” said Dorothea Dorenz, who lives on Neilson.

“It’s a pillar of democracy, to have a free exchange of information through the postal service,” Nail said.

What you can do

Residents in both neighborhoods have begun to use Informed Delivery, a free postal service feature that previews what mail is arriving and when. While their mail is still not all arriving when predicted, it at least gives them a heads-up when something important may have gone missing.

Post office boxes provide an alternative for delivery for those who can make it to a post office during the day. But they can be costly, from $4.50 a month for the smallest up to $22.50 for the largest, according to the postal service.

City police also recommended that residents using conventional mailboxes can invest in locking ones, which have a slot for mail carriers to deliver mail but are accessible only by key to anyone looking to retrieve it.

Anyone who believes they are experiencing mail or identity theft is encouraged to contact city police at 510-981-5900 and the postal inspectors at 877-876-2455 or online.

“The key is, not just when the mail is stolen, but three or four weeks later if you see a transaction on a bank statement or a credit card statement you did not make, contact us again,” Fitch said. Inspectors can use those clues to track suspects through the stores where they may be using stolen information.

“We share information with the Berkeley PD, they share information with us, the key is to make a report,” Fitch said.

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Alex N. Gecan joined Berkeleyside in 2023 as a senior reporter covering public safety. He has covered criminal justice, courts and breaking and local news for The Middletown Press, Stamford Advocate and...