The “cadillac of mailboxes” arrives in n.y.c. the new yorker electricity symbols


President Trump seems awfully worried about the financial state of the United States Postal Service. He thinks the culprit is Amazon. “This Post Office scam must stop,” he tweeted. “I am right about Amazon costing the United States Post Office massive amounts of money for being their Delivery Boy!” Maybe no one has told Trump about what is arguably the Postal Service’s most pressing crisis.

“It’s called mailbox fishing,” Phil Bartlett, the inspector in charge at the New York division of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, said recently at the agency’s headquarters, on West Thirtieth Street. On a table in front of him was a small bottle of Tropicana cranberry juice. It was coated in a viscous white goo, and a black shoelace had been knotted around its neck. “This is actually a fishing device,” he said, touching the bottle. “It’s very sticky, as you can see. It’s rat glue.”

Mailbox fishing—as distinct from phishing—refers to a low-tech kind of mail theft that has spiked in recent years. In 2015, letter carriers began to notice that the standard blue sidewalk mailboxes in some Bronx and Manhattan neighborhoods had been smeared with gluey substances. An uptick in mail theft—stolen checks, cash, money orders, and gift cards—followed.

Bartlett, who wore a gray suit and a striped tie, and who speaks with a hint of a Boston accent, lifted the bottle by its shoelace lead. Crooks, he said, “lower it into the box, and they jig it around”—he flicked his wrist so that the bottle bobbed in the air—“and they get the mail to stick to it. Then, when they pull it out of the box, they have access to the mail.”

Perpetrators use various methods to alter checks once they’ve fished them out. Bartlett said, “There’s products out there, things like Ink Away, or sometimes nail-polish remover. Or they soak them in a solution containing brake fluid.” Then they’ll reissue the checks to somebody else. Alternatively, Bartlett went on, “they just take the bank routing number and the account number. You can buy software and make a counterfeit check.”

The U.S.P.S. has also begun the painstaking process of replacing or retrofitting every blue mailbox in the city and some surrounding suburbs—roughly seven thousand boxes in all—with features designed to thwart fishing attempts. The new model looks identical to the old one, except that instead of a wide hinged opening there is a narrow slit, three-eighths of an inch high. Anyone mailing multiple letters will no longer hear the satisfying shuffle and thunk of envelopes hitting the pile inside. Letters have to be inserted into the “skinny slit,” as Bartlett calls it, one or two at a time. The new boxes are also equipped with internal anti-fishing mechanisms, which, for security reasons, Bartlett declined to describe.

A few weeks later, a small flatbed truck pulled up beside a rusty old mailbox in the Fordham Manor neighborhood of the Bronx. Two Postal Service workers got out. One, Joffre Taylor, crouched beside the old box. “1988,” he said, reading numbers off the side. He wore a purple hooded sweatshirt, a down vest emblazoned with the letters “USPS,” and protective gloves. A master key hung from a gold chain at his waist. Using a power drill, he began to remove the bolts securing each of the box’s legs to the concrete, sending up clouds of dust.

Meanwhile, his partner, Hakim McPhee, who had on layered hooded sweatshirts, removed a new mailbox from the truck and shimmied it to the curb. The two men used special bolts, which can’t be removed with regular tools, to anchor it to the pavement. McPhee said that, to pry a box loose from the sidewalk, “some people back their cars into it.”

Other passersby were confounded by the new box. A few poked at the skinny slit with their fingers. One woman, after a failed attempt to deposit an envelope, stood in front of the mailbox, squinting. She walked around it slowly. Seeing no obvious way in, she gave up. “That’s crazy,” she muttered as she went into the post office. ♦ This article appears in the print edition of the May 7, 2018, issue, with the headline “Fishing.”