NEW YORK -- 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.
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.
Mail thieves often look for newly issued credit cards. Visa USA, for example, estimates it has about 1.5 million cards in the mail every day. Once a week, Visa reports to the postal service the number of cards lost or stolen -- currently 25,000 to 35,000 per month. (MasterCard International says it does not keep comparable numbers. American Express declined to comment.)
Credit card mail theft dropped sharply in 1994, down 31 percent from the prior year. 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.
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 John Brugger, a postal inspector in Washington.