The U.S. Postal Service has advised customers to avoid sending mail using blue drop boxes due to a rise in mail theft. Groups of criminals are stealing mail to obtain money checks, and a small number of ballots appear to be getting caught up in the net.
Criminals are stealing mailbox keys, and looking for checks and other financial information that they sell on the internet. David Maimon, who studies cybertheft at Georgia State University, discovered a single photo on the dark web just days before the midterm elections that appears to show about a dozen ballots from Arizona scattered among a pile of stolen mail.
Maimon says the ballots are unlikely to be the target of the theft. And elections officials stress that voting by mail is safe.
Here & Now reached out to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service with this information. On its website, the agency says the unique status of election mail makes its security a top priority during every election cycle.
What’s the larger picture around mail theft across America?
“So what the Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group does is monitor the online underground platforms on which illicit commodities are being offered for sale for anyone who's interested. Starting in October 2020, we started to observe some really interesting trends related to checks, but then we started investigating and realized that the source for those checks are essentially USPS mailboxes, which were robbed by a group of criminals who simply targeted the mailboxes, emptied them and started offering the checks for sale on the platforms we oversee.”
How much mail is being stolen across the country? How common is it?
“We don't know how common this is because, at the end of the day, we don't have eyes all around the country. I can tell you that we’re seeing that in October 2020, on an average week, the criminals uploaded around 114 checks a week on the platforms.
“Nowadays, we're talking about close to 3,000 checks populating those 60 channels we are monitoring on a weekly basis. That, in my opinion, speaks volumes to the dramatic increase in the volume of stolen mail here in the United States.”
What did the picture with the stolen mail and ballots depict?
“In that image, what we were able to observe are more than a dozen mail ballots being part of the crop that the criminal had during that specific heist. The picture was uploaded on Oct. 27 on one of the platforms we oversee.”
Do you believe the ballots themselves were the target of the thieves?
“I do not. I do not believe that the envelopes, the ballots themself are the target of the thieves. We know, based on our experience and our research, that criminals are essentially looking for the checks. Unfortunately, along the way, people are losing packages. They are losing other info, important information that they sell. Part of it, unfortunately, are the mail in ballots.”
Is this happening in other places across the country?
“Other than that — the picture I shared with NPR — there's another picture in another area. We're still trying to figure out the authenticity of that picture with the mail ballot in it. But, you know, other than those two pictures, we haven't really seen any other images with stolen mail ballots.”
How can we know that this picture is real, that it wasn't put out there by a political group trying to sow doubt in the election or even a foreign government trying to do the same thing?
“It's a great question, which I've been struggling with since I found the picture. Based on what we know, based on where we sit, based on the information we accumulated during the last year and a half, we have strong reason to believe that the picture we're looking at is legit and arrived from local actors in the United States.”
“I don't think that we're talking about a foreign actor. I think that we're talking about a group of criminals who simply were careless with respect to what they were taking the picture of. Now we're all seeing what some of the ramifications of not protecting the mail in the United States is.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of the story included an image provided to Here & Now of stolen mail. We removed the image over concerns it may be misused and repurposed to spread misinformation.
This segment aired on November 8, 2022.