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Thieves Loot Mail In Search Of Checks

WARNING: Keep an eagle eye on your mail.

Thieves are targeting postal deliveries in the hope of snaring Social Security and welfare checks, as well as phone and credit cards. They are also looking for bank statements or other financial information, such as Social Security numbers, that could help them loot a bank account.

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Consider the antics of Phillip Kousnetsov and Yuri Kosnogov. As the pair walked out of an East Side Manhattan apartment building last July, federal postal inspectors followed them to their car. Once inside, the authorities nabbed them.

The side pocket of each car door bulged with other peoples' mail -- mostly credit-card bills, phone cards, bank statements, and other financial documents. The two quickly pleaded guilty to theft and obstruction of the mail.

Their case is not an isolated one. Nationwide, mail theft is growing.

''Volume attacks involving collection boxes, apartment houses, and vehicles are still on the rise,'' says John Brugger, a postal inspector in Washington.

In Los Angeles, for example, such attacks have become ''a serious problem,'' says Mr. Brugger as street gangs target postal workers on the days that welfare or Social Security checks are mailed. But, Brugger says, the problem has also extended to San Diego and the Pacific Northwest.

In New York, a federal grand jury is investigating mail theft. ''Our agency, plus the Secret Service, is currently and actively investigating mail stolen and apartments broken into for financial gain,'' says Joe Larkin a postal inspector in New York.

Mail thieves often look for newly issued credit cards. Visa USA, for example, estimates it has about 1.5 million cards in the US mail everyday. Once a week, Visa reports to the Post Office the number of cards lost or stolen -- currently between 25,000 and 35,000 per month. (Mastercard International says it does not keep comparable numbers. American Express declined to comment for the story.)

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Credit-card mail theft dropped sharply in 1994, down 31 percent from the prior year. This prompts Vincent De Luca, vice president for fraud control at Mastercard, to declare that mail theft is ''no longer a hot issue in credit cards with respect to fraud.''

Although losses are down at Visa, ''a fair amount of cards are still being stolen,'' says Allan Trosclair, Visa's vice president of fraud control.

Company officials attribute the decline to improved police work and changes in how they deliver cards. Visa, for example, now uses Federal Express to deliver cards in zip codes with high loss rates. Mastercard says its distributors sometimes try to mask the cards by sending them out with junk mail. Last year, the Postal Service arrested corrupt airport workers stealing cards at Houston and Boston airports.

Today, almost all the card companies require that consumers activate the new cards by phoning in personal information, such as their date of birth or mother's maiden name. In January, Visa hoped to cut down on card fraud even more with a computer program that spots the buying patterns of people known to commit card fraud.

But other types of thefts remain a problem -- and thieves seem to be getting more ingenious at using financial information and forging signatures.

''If you are expecting a check and you have not received it within the five business days of normal mail delivery, you better contact the people issuing the check. There may have been a theft,'' says Brugger.

Postal Service officials say they are trying to work with community policing groups and local residents to try to combat the problem. That's how Mr. Kousnetsov and Mr. Kosnogov got caught.

Last summer, East Side resident Marcia Vickers was working from her apartment. When she would leave the residence at around noon, Ms. Vickers would check her mail, but not necessarily remove it from the mailbox. One day she noticed she had received her American Express bill. But when she returned from her errands, the bill was missing. The same thing later happened to another credit-card bill.

Vickers called the Post Office and was transferred to Mr. Larkin. She agreed to watch the mailboxes. In her best Nancy Drew pose, she took up a position in a stairwell outside her apartment.

One day, after the postman delivered the mail, two men arrived and went through the boxes. ''My heart was just pounding,'' recalls Vickers. She notified Larkin, who eventually arrested the Russians.

Larkin had hoped to include an electronic bug in one of the pieces of mail so the two men could be traced to more people whom authorities believe were involved in the ring. But that plan fell through.

Besides Vicker's mail, the two men had been going through other peoples' boxes.

One especially unfortunate East Side resident was called by an MCI operator, who asked if he had authorized a call to Moscow with his calling card (a card he had never received).

He also discovered the thieves had stolen a Chase Manhattan Bank debit card, which automatically deducts money from a checking account. The ring spent $7,000 before he discovered the deduction. Chase, which had been notified about the problem earlier, reversed the debit once it was notified about the transactions.

Kosnogov pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor -- obstructing the mail. He was sentenced to one year of unsupervised probation and given a $10 fine. He has since moved back to Russia, and his punishment stipulated that he could not return to the US during the probation.

Kousnetsov pleaded guilty to mail theft, a felony. His sentencing is scheduled for May 23. Neither man, nor their attorneys, could be reached for comment.

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