Carlsbad mail thefts: ‘Feels like there’s somebody out there that has free access to boxes in the entire city’

Is it safe to send things through the mail?

Some families in one Carlsbad neighborhood would likely answer no to that question after thieves cleaned out mailboxes repeatedly in the past couple of months. While the United States Postal Service (USPS) says it’s doubling down on catching thieves, its inspector general says it’s nowhere near keeping pace.

Some people wouldn’t guess that crime is common in the affluent Bressi Ranch neighborhood, known for its manicured lawns, family friendly playgrounds, and idyllic suburban streets, but homeowners say there is definitely something criminal afoot. 

In February, when Joelle Grove checked her mailbox, she found nothing, despite an alert saying a package had been delivered. That package contained a prescription for her daughter.

“I feel frustrated, I feel frustrated,” Grove told us. “It was really important. It was over a hundred dollars of medication.”

After a check-in with the neighborhood’s online group, Grove learned she wasn’t alone.

“It really made me mad,” Chanda Daly said after irreplaceable Guatemalan handmade art from disadvantaged women artists was taken from her mailbox. “It was really upsetting,”

“It’s frustrating because it’s not something I can replace on Amazon,” Daly said. “Not really the monetary value but it’s just the significance of it.”

A Bressi Ranch homeowner shot this photo, showing most of a cluster mailbox cleaned out by a suspected thief after a USPS delivery in February.

A Bressi Ranch homeowner shot this photo, showing most of a cluster mailbox cleaned out by a suspected thief after a USPS delivery in February. (NBC 7)

Daly was one of dozens of neighbors who live several blocks away from Grove who shared similar experiences in the online group. One homeowner near Daly’s side of Bressi Ranch asked a postal worker to open his cluster mailbox. He snapped a photo, showing most everyone’s mail had been swiped.

A master key goes missing

The Postal Police Officers Association shared this image of two USPS arrow keys it says was included in an online black market sale.

The Postal Police Officers Association shared this image of two USPS arrow keys it says were included in an online black market sale. (Postal Police Officers Association)

Cluster mailboxes like the ones in Bressi Ranch are preferred by the USPS. They let letter carriers deliver mail to dozens of homes in just one stop. What makes them so efficient is that one master key, called an arrow key, opens every mailbox at once. This efficiency also makes these mailboxes, and those arrow keys, extremely valuable to thieves.

Last May, a House Oversight Committee questioned Inspector General Louis Dejoy over how the postal service manages lost and stolen arrow keys.

“Stealing our keys has been a problem for a number of years, and we’re addressing that now,” Dejoy said. “I want to ensure that we have our eyes wide open about the magnitude of the problem that we need to fix.”

When an arrow key falls into the wrong hands, Dejoy said, criminals can access every cluster box or collection box within a mail route. That can include an entire ZIP code or city. There are about 360,000 arrow keys in use by the postal service nationwide.

A federal audit last fall found many post offices don’t properly track which mail carriers take out or return arrow keys, which is supposed to be done daily. 

Hundreds of missing arrow keys were never reported, according to the audit. That was revealed when the USPS conducted a “surge” in mail theft investigations in Chicago and Oakland. The USPS discovered 585 keys were missing from those two postal districts during a two-week time period.

People don’t realize how bad this is. It’s gotten completely out of control.

Frank Albergo, president of the Postal Police Officers Association

When mail carriers are robbed, more than half of the time it’s because criminals are trying to take arrow keys, the audit found.

“We expect that the postal service will take its job seriously to deliver our mail securely and safely,” Rep. Kweisi Mfume told Dejoy at that Congressional hearing, “and yet it appears that the postal service cannot guarantee fully the safety of individuals and, in some instances, it seems to have prioritized cost-saving strategies.”

The USPS already announced plans to upgrade cluster boxes and arrow keys with more secure versions, but, the audit, said the postal service doesn’t have the money or manpower to roll out the upgrades on a national scale. 

Back in Bressi Ranch, Grove said she reported the thefts to her local post office and filed a complaint with the postal inspector. National and regional spokespeople for the USPS wouldn’t tell NBC 7 Investigates if arrow keys were stolen or missing in Carlsbad, although, Grove said, a local postal employee told her two arrow keys in Carlsbad were compromised.

And when Grove asked whether the USPS planned to replace the locks and master keys, “It’s a cost issue,” is what Grove said regional postal employees told her, “that it would cost millions of dollars to change the locks in the city of Carlsbad, and at this point the post office is waiting on the mail inspector’s investigation.”

NBC 7 Investigates reached out to the Carlsbad Post Office and the regional postal inspector. They declined a request for an on-camera interview and would not answer any questions about the investigation outside of confirming that one exists.

Mail theft is not unique to Carlsbad, or even to San Diego County. It’s a ballooning problem hitting cities across the nation.

According to an October 2022 survey, 14% of Americans had a package stolen from their homes in 2022, and 34% knew someone else who had a package stolen.

No more patrols by postal police officers

This undated photo shows a postal police officer during an investigation.

This undated photo shows a postal police officer during an investigation. (Postal Police Officers Association)

If you ask Frank Albergo, the president of the Postal Police Officers Association, he’ll tell you there’s a big reason why mail theft is as big a problem as it is.

“They made a policy choice to bench the postal police force during a postal crime wave,” Albergo told NBC 7. “People don’t realize how bad this is. It’s gotten completely out of control, completely out of control.”

In the summer of 2020, the USPS ended postal police patrols and limited postal officers’ arrest rights. As a result, Albergo said, officers are confined to guarding post office buildings, instead of patrolling mail routes and protecting postal workers.

“Letter carriers are having guns stuck in their face every day,” Albergo said. “And the downstream effects of those robberies are very serious: identity theft, banking fraud, check fraud. So, we have a problem.”

Albergo said postal officers need to once again patrol mail routes. He said those officers should also perform arrow-key reviews and that the inspection service needs more staff so it can investigate theft complaints. He also said the postal service needs to do a better job of alerting people when they suspect an arrow key may be compromised. NBC 7 asked the USPS for a response, but it declined to comment directly.

National and regional USPS spokespeople told NBC 7, “The safety and security of our mail carriers and our workforce as a whole is a top priority for USPS as well as the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.”

“Please have residents report any mail theft to U.S. Postal Inspection Service by calling the number provided, (877) 876-2455. Additionally, the monetary reward program for information leading to the identification, arrest and prosecution of those who commit crimes against the postal service, its employees, and the mailstream has been updated and increased. A reward of up to $100,000.00 is now available for those who provide information on the theft of mail.

That response hasn’t been comforting to neighbors in Bressi Ranch. Since NBC 7 started talking to Grove, she said the mail theft has gotten worse. She said checks meant for relatives have been stolen and cashed at big banks.

“Feels like there’s somebody out there that has free access to lock boxes in the entire city,” Grove said. “It just makes me wonder how much longer we’re going to go without knowing.”

Efforts to crack down on mail theft

Nationally, the USPS said it has made more than 1,200 arrests for letter-carrier robberies since May 2023. It said that’s part of a 73% increase in arrests this fiscal year, compared with the same time period last fiscal year. It said that it has installed 15,000 more secure blue collection boxes in high postal-crime areas and added 28,000 electronic locks on other boxes since last May.

However, postal crime still went up last year. 

Postal-carrier robberies climbed to 643 last year, an increase of nearly 30%, and the number of robberies resulting in injuries doubled to 61 then, according to figures provided by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Associated Press.

All told, robberies grew sixfold over the past decade and the number of postal carriers held at gunpoint increased even more, according to an analysis of the postal statistics.

Last month, Congress introduced a bill called the Protect Our Letter Carriers Act of 2024. HR 7629 would allocate $7 billion to replace arrow keys with electronic versions that have no value to criminals. It would also require U.S. attorneys to designate a prosecutor specifically for postal crime and strengthen sentencing guidelines for those crimes. For example, attacks on mail carriers would be comparable to attacks on federal law enforcement officers. 

Tips to protect your mail

This image, provided by the USPS, shows a letter carrier delivering mail.

This image, provided by the USPS, shows a letter carrier delivering mail. (USPS)

Along with checking your mailbox regularly and quickly following deliveries, there are other steps you can take to try to prevent mail theft:

  • Since blue mail dropboxes can be compromised when arrow keys are stolen, drop off outgoing mail at post offices or hand it directly to a letter carrier
  • Never send checks through the mail. Along with “check washing” practices, thieves can also use imaging software to reproduce checks or make money transfers
  • Sign up for paperless billing and any documentation with personal information, such as tax forms, health insurance, car insurance policy information, etc
  • Sign up for Informed Delivery, which emails you daily with previews of mail you’ll be getting
  • Keep an eye out for your letter carrier. If you see something that looks suspicious, or you see someone following your carrier, call 911
  • Report stolen or missing mail by submitting an online complaint to the Postal Inspection Service at or calling (877) 876-2455. Your local mail inspector will mail you a complaint form, fill that out and return it