THE SECRET WATCHERS WHO GUARD YOUR MAIL

They’re unarmed, can’t make arrests and get no glory. But this little-known band of postal sleuths wage a quiet, devastating war against swindlers and light-fingered Harrys most police forces can’t match

N. R. DRESKIN September 1 1967

THE SECRET WATCHERS WHO GUARD YOUR MAIL

They’re unarmed, can’t make arrests and get no glory. But this little-known band of postal sleuths wage a quiet, devastating war against swindlers and light-fingered Harrys most police forces can’t match

N. R. DRESKIN September 1 1967

THE SECRET WATCHERS WHO GUARD YOUR MAIL

They’re unarmed, can’t make arrests and get no glory. But this little-known band of postal sleuths wage a quiet, devastating war against swindlers and light-fingered Harrys most police forces can’t match

N. R. DRESKIN

IN TORONTO not long ago, a gang of mailbox thieves followed along behind postmen they knew were distributing old-age pension cheques. Using master keys, the thieves opened one box after another and lifted out the familiar government envelopes. The whole caper seemed like a cinch; nobody even saw them, except for a few shabbily dressed men who shuffled by, delivering handbills.

But by nightfall, every member of the gang was in jail. The “handbill distributors” had actually been undercover men from a little-publicized police force: the Investigation Service of the Post Office Department.

The IS is a group of 40 highly trained specialists who work in Ottawa and in 14 district centres across Canada. It’s their job to see that our mail — and the valuables in it — get through safely. And it’s a big job. Last year, the post office handled 4.5 billion pieces of mail and an estimated two billion dollars of our money.

The IS men have had to cope with growing numbers of post-office crimes. Mailbox robberies have increased 50 percent since 1960; fraud - by - mail cases by 30 percent in the past three years.

On the surface, the odds would seem to be stacked in favor of the lawbreakers. Not only do the IS men go about their work unarmed, they don’t even have the power of arrest.

“We depend on the regular police for that,” explains Superintendent Bill Taylor, a veteran of 35 years in the service and its head since 1962. “Our job isn’t to collect glory — just evidence that will hold up in court.”

With that approach, Taylor’s men have managed a record few law-enforcement agencies can match. About 90 percent of the charges arising out of their investigations result in convictions. For instance, from a recent assortment of 522 charges laid, 450 convictions resulted.

To build such solid cases, the mail detectives must often gather shreds of evidence from places hundreds of miles apart. When a woman cashed three stolen money orders in Vancouver, out of a batch of 250 taken from a Victoria post office, she erased her own name from an Ontario driver’s license and replaced it with the fictitious name she’d written on the money orders. But the postal clerk had jotted down the license number. The investigators traced it to Toronto, found that the letters in the owner’s handwriting were formed similarly to those of the forged signature. Weeks of patient sleuthing followed. Then one day a woman appeared at a general-delivery wicket in Vancouver to pick up mail. The clerk recognized the name as that

of the woman being sought and signaled waiting detectives. They trailed her to her apartment.

Five months after the robbery, the Vancouver police made the arrest. She and her boyfriend had not only the remaining 247 money order forms, but $89,000 in stolen bonds and a small arsenal of guns used in holdups. She got 18 months, the man two and a half years.

The post office employs some 44,000 persons and, inevitably, a few succumb to the temptation of valuables in the mail. When contributions to the Ontario headquarters of a charitable organization began disappearing in the mails, the pattern pointed to two major transshipment points, Montreal and Toronto. These monstrously big post offices have perhaps 1,000 employees working three shifts on several floors each the size of a city block. “In a case like this,” says Superintendent Taylor, “everybody in the post-office building becomes a suspect.” But decoy mail (in this case, letters addressed to the charitable organization) finally narrowed the hunt down to one section of some 20 mail sorters. At this stage, the investigators took to the observation gallery, a hidden platform over the working area.

“We call it the Black Hole,” says one investigator. “You can spend days and nights up there, cramped, watching, not able to relax for a second, waiting for somebody to make the telltale move, then miss it because the hand can be quicker than the eye. A back is turned, a letter slipped into a shirt, and the action is over.”

But the long, patient watch usually pays off, as it did in this case. When a sorting clerk walked out to his car at the end of his shift with a stolen letter, an investigator was waiting. An 18-month jail sentence followed.

The postal detectives use all the time-honored tricks of sleuthing — especially disguises. When they traced missing mail to a railway mail car, they rode the adjoining car and trailed one of the clerks who would leave the station to buy cigarettes. En route he would drop a letter into a street box, addressed to himself in care of a girlfriend. It contained the missing valuable. This time, when he came to pick it up later, the police were waiting. The culprit hadn’t suspected the “clergyman” on one occasion, an overailed laborer on another.

Mail frauds pop up continually. “These sharpies don’t miss a trick,” says a post-office spokesman. “Their annual take probably runs into the millions.”

Post-office files bulge with case histories of how man’s chronic itch for the easy dollar dulls his commonsense. A promised pirate’s - treasure hunt brought in a flood of $100 “investments” when the fraud artist guaranteed a return of $1,000 in a year.

One crook amassed thousands by convincing his victims with charts and documents “proving” that he held the patent rights to — of all things — the wheel, and “all I need is financial backing for legal fees to fight the big interests and the returns will be fantastic.” They were, for him, until he went to jail.

Hundreds of dupes eager for realestate bargains bought “choice lots” of 2,000 square feet. These turned out to be 10 feet wide and 200 feet long — “enough,” reported a postal investigator wryly, “to string a clothesline.” True, the promoter delivered the promised land. But he got jail for falsely stating that the lots had been zoned for industrial use.

One comedian bilked his customers out of a dollar for “a novel coat hanger and cigarette lighter.” He mailed to each a nail and a match. “Not guilty,” he pleaded when haled into court. “I delivered exactly what I'd advertised.” He went to jail anyway. Sending matches through the mail, unless they are enclosed in an approved fireproof container, can bring a fine of $3,000 or three years, or both.

Postal authorities also clamped down on an operator who used the mails to sell "a finely engraved picture of Her Majesty, suitable for framing — only $3.” it was a one-cent stamp.

More serious is the fraud that preys on the sick, selling them quack remedies and devices, thus often delaying expert medical help. In one Quebec case such a device was sold through the mails for $300. It promised to cure diseases from diabetes to cancer by its “radio-active emissions.” It contained useless chunks of lead. The seller was assessed a heavy fine.

The elderly and invalid are favorite victims of the make-money-at-home

scheme. Knitting machines are sold them, for example, to make baby garments. "Buy one and we'll sell what you make.” Then some promoters, having collected their money, either skip or return the garments as “not up to our standards.”

Not long ago Maritime university students, answering an ad for summer jobs, were instructed to remit $10 to cover “union dues and group insurance.” There were no jobs, only a mail drop where the swindler picked up his cash and money orders. He got a jail sentence.

Newspaper death notices were the basis of fraud in Montreal. Bereaved families received C.O.D. parcels addressed to the dead person. They paid $4.95 for a 15-cent ballpoint pen they assumed he had ordered. Relatives of one deceased victim exposed the fraud when they informed the post office (which was collecting the C.O.D.) that the addressee had been so crippled by arthritis he hadn't been able to write for years.

Frequently, post - office detectives work with Interpol and the U. S. Post Office on illegal use of international mails. One case with an international angle involved a man named Hyman D. Novick, of Montreal. In a career that spanned 20 years, Novick worked under 130 different names and addresses. His system was simple but amazingly effective and, according to one U. S. authority, netted him about $100,000 a year.

He would order goods, anything from anchovies to wallpaper cleaner, sometimes in carload lots, from U. S. firms on the strength of firm names bearing a striking resemblance to some of the largest businesses in Canada — for example, “The Hudsen Bay Company.” He would follow up the order with a request for a substantial cheque, sometimes running to several thousand dollars, to cover customs duties. “Just a formality to expedite things at the border,” he'd explain. “You'll gel il back, of course. Include it when billing.” And the shipper, told to make out this cheque to a customs broker, had no means of knowing that the third party was also Novick. All his enterprises existed only in a mail drop — at one time a broom closet in a Montreal office building.

THE SECRET WATCHERS continued

One way to keep the mails safe: complain more frequently

Novick would then cash the cheque and dispose of the goods at cut-rate prices. As fast as the complaints poured in from outraged suppliers, the post office would cut off Novick’s mail privileges. He would counter with another business name, another mail drop, and continue. He kept out of jail because his victims preferred not to add to their losses the expense of coming to Canada to testify. Whenever one did seem about to do just that, Novick would stall him off with a token repayment, which rarely went beyond that. But he couldn’t shake off the post-office investigators, who kept stopping his mail and thus crimping his operations. Badgered, he moved to Champlain, New York, operated there for a short time, then returned to Montreal. But the brief stay in Champlain had proved to be his undoing. Although he had now returned to Canada, the fact remained that, while in Champlain, he had been defrauding U. S. citizens while on U. S. soil, an offense for which he could be — and was — extradited by the American government. When he was returned to the U. S. for trial, the Canadian Post Office provided its massive dossier of evidence, involving some 150 firms that Novick had defrauded. It helped send him to penitentiary for four years.

Superintendent Bill Taylor’s favorite case involved the theft of $5,000 between the bank and the post office in an Ontario town some years ago. He spent several weeks getting nowhere, then, on a hunch, he asked the secretary at the police station to type a letter for him, to Ottawa, in which he stated he had the culprit and was enclosing one of the missing bills for checking.

That evening he hid himself in the police-station office and watched the mail basket in which his letter lay. His quarry soon showed up to capture the incriminating “evidence.” It was the chief of police, who had a duplicate key to the post office, knew of the shipment, and had stolen it by slitting open a mailbag. He got four years.

The post office is one business that wishes its customers would complain more frequently. “It's the only way we learn that mail is missing or delayed,” says Taylor. Here’s an example. A hunter recently came across a pile of 300 letters in the bush. The letters were 18 months old and had been dumped there by a carrier to shorten his working day. “Some of the mail contained valuables and cheques,” says a post-office spokesman, “yet we'd only received two complaints of undelivered mail — a necdle-in-thehaystack proposition.”

Postal investigators say you can protect yourself from mail fraud and theft if you follow these simple rules:

□ Put a good lock on your mailbox and clear it as soon as possible after each delivery. For security, nothing can beat the door mail slot.

□ Report missing mail at once.

□ Don’t send cash by mail. It's not illegal, but risky. About $2,500 in loose coins that fell out of envelopes enriched the government last year.

□ Never send money for cure-all medicines or devices.

□ Always check with a lawyer or Better Business Bureau before making payments on a make-money-at-home scheme.

□ Advise your postmaster if you've been taken by a mail fraud, however small. Show him suspicious mail, including the envelope.

□ Report to the police or post office any suspicious activity around a street mailbox.

“Keep in mind,” says Superintendent Taylor, "that we must depend on complaints to learn of wrongdoing with the mails. And the sooner we learn about it, the faster we can do something about it.”

The post office's record of “doing something about it” is a pretty good one. ★