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Two arrests so far in local mail theft crime spree
Suburbs around the east metro were recently hit with a rash of mail thefts, an uptick that authorities say may have been aggravated by tax season.
Two St. Paul men were charged Monday with identity theft in connection with a weeks-long spree that spanned several metro cities and western Wisconsin, where they allegedly stole mail from hundreds of victims, cashed fraudulent checks and made charges on stolen credit cards.
Runger Vang, 25, and Chao Moua, 26, were arrested during a traffic stop in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood on Friday, Feb. 7.
Police discovered mail in the vehicle, including tax documents, checkbooks, unopened packages and credit cards from several cities, including Roseville and Woodbury, according criminal complaints filed in Ramsey County District Court on Feb. 10.
The Roseville Police Department had previously received a tip from a local resident who captured images that matched the description of the suspects’ vehicle, a four-door red Toyota RAV4 SUV, stopping at mailboxes along the street.
The RAV4 appeared to be the same suspect vehicle videotaped by another home security camera in Woodbury.
Woodbury investigators discovered the two men used credit cards and cashed stolen checks. One check was cashed for $1,800.
Admitting he made around $800 in fraudulent transactions, Moua later told police that he was wearing shoes he bought with a stolen credit card when he was arrested, according to the complaint.
Moua reportedly told police that he tried to file an online tax return on behalf of one of the victims in order to steal the person’s tax refund, but he did not want to pay a fee to have the refund processed.
Moua and Vang are each facing maximum sentences of 20 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
The U.S. Postal Service will return the stolen pieces of mail to the original addresses this week.
Mail thefts often spike in winter
Roseville police recently noted a jump in reports of mail theft, which is a type of crime officials expect this time of year.
“We’ve noticed an uptick, which typically starts around the holidays, but really starts fast and furious in January when employers send out W2s and 1099s,” Roseville police Lt. Lorne Rosand said.
Since late December, Rosand said his department has received 24 complaints of mail theft in the city, adding he suspects that number will increase over the next couple of months while income-tax refunds are being mailed out.
Reports of mail theft usually occur in spurts, according to North St. Paul Capt. Dustin Nikituk.
“When they happen, they happen frequently,” Nikituk said. “It’s really a crime of opportunity. From past experience, it seems to go from city to city. It has no boundaries.”
Although North St. Paul has had only one reported mail theft in recent months, other nearby cities have seen a rise in reports of stolen envelopes and packages.
The Oakdale Police Department recently received several reports of mail thefts, open mailboxes and packages taken throughout the city. The increase spurred a crime alert from the department urging residents to take precautions.
Maplewood hasn’t had a notable increase in theft reports, but it’s common for police to see small spikes periodically, Police Chief Paul Schnell said.
Recently, there were three thefts reported in two days, and one included fraud activity, Schnell said.
An outgoing payment in the form of a check for $5.34 was stolen from a mailbox on Feb. 5.
The check was altered, and then cashed for $1,000, Schnell said.
Two other Maplewood residents reported their mailboxes were rifled through on Feb. 4, he said, and some of the mail was later found in a nearby yard.
Police departments in the cities of Mounds View, New Brighton and St. Anthony Village have reported recent occurrences of mail theft, but the numbers of reported instances are low and nothing out of the ordinary, officials say.
Caught on tape
Schnell said there are usually two approaches to stealing mail. Some individuals look for “quick scores,” such as stealing credit cards, cash or valuables. Others snatch Social Security numbers, and are sophisticated enough to be able to use that personal information to make it valuable by, perhaps, opening up fraudulent credit cards accounts, he said.
A North St. Paul resident, whose home is rigged with security cameras, was a recent victim of the “quick score” type.
Police responded to a mail theft complaint on the 2400 block of Holloway Avenue in North St. Paul the night of Jan. 22, according to the police report. The homeowner told police that he saw footprints in the snow leading to his front door, and then checked his surveillance videos for anything suspicious.
The footage showed a young female getting out of a red or maroon four-door Buick Lucerne, walking through his yard and up to the mailbox next to his front door. The young woman reached in and took a Netflix DVD rental, worth about $10, the report said. The resident turned over to police images of the mail theft suspect and the car she apparently was driving.
But the man wasn’t too worried about losing the DVD.
He “was more concerned with the boldness of the unknown female coming to his front door,” the incident report said.
Protect yourself from mail theft
“The No. 1 thing people can do to reduce their chances of mail being stolen is to never ever put outgoing mail into your mailbox,” Rosand said.
Nikituk took it further.
“We recommend putting mail in a secure mailbox,” Nikituk said.
Options include a P.O. box or a box that locks.
Other tips from police:
• Don’t raise the mailbox’s red flag. It’s a giveaway to thieves.
• Hand-deliver outgoing mail to the U.S. Postal Service’s blue secured mailboxes.
• Have a trusted neighbor collect mail when out of town or notify the Postal Service to stop delivery temporarily.
• Switch to online payment options for bills whenever possible to avoid identify theft due to stolen mail.
• Never send cash or coins in the mail.
• Don’t leave your outgoing mail in the box overnight.
• Empty your mailbox promptly and frequently, especially if you’re expecting checks or credit cards.
• Call 911 immediately if you observe suspicious activity.
Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7814 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews. Joshua Nielsen contributed to this report.