A new report from the USPS inspector general pilloried the service's plan to reduce mail theft for a lack of milestones and timelines.

A new report from the USPS inspector general pilloried the service's plan to reduce mail theft for a lack of milestones and timelines. AvailableLight / Getty Images

USPS says mail theft is getting worse, but its plans are so far incomplete and yielding few results

The mailing agency must flesh out its strategies to address rising crime rates, Postal Service watchdog says.

As the U.S. Postal Service acknowledges that incidents of mail theft are on the rise across the country, a watchdog is faulting the agency for taking incomplete steps and making insufficient plans to address the issue. 

USPS, in conjunction with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, has launched Project Safe Delivery to address the increasing crime rates. The initiative is riddled with a lack of milestones and timelines for new efforts, according to the USPS inspector general, and has so far led to few concrete results. Two-week surges of personnel in areas with high rates of mail theft—Chicago and Oakland—led to just three arrests and 277 recovered mail pieces, the IG found. Additionally, USPS has not finalized an overall plan to address mail theft and only plans to do so next fall. 

Earlier this year, USPS conceded it was far outpacing prior year rates of letter carriers being robbed on the job and blue collection boxes being broken into. To confront the problem, USPS is releasing 12,000 “high security” boxes in high-risk areas around the country. The boxes are hardened to make access more difficult for criminals. It is also replacing the universal keys that give letter carriers access to collection boxes, cluster boxes and apartment panels—known as “arrow” keys—with an electronic alternative.

USPS is deploying 49,000 “e-arrow keys,” which add additional security for opening boxes. That represents just 13% of the arrow keys USPS has in circulation, the IG said. It is replacing less than 10% of its 140,000 blue collection boxes. Postal management said it could eventually look to replace a higher number in both categories, but that will depend on availability of funding. 

USPS noted a full replacement of all 9 million arrow locks it controls would cost $2.6 billion just for hardware. It will look to expand its initiatives in fiscal 2025, but stressed they could be constrained by a lack of funding. Management pledged to complete its overall mail theft plan and implement it by Sept. 1, 2024. 

The IG agreed it could be unfeasible to replace every arrow lock, but implored USPS to develop a plan that lays out costs, timelines and metrics to measure success. The mailing agency has no plans outside its initial rollouts and pilots, the watchdog said, increasing the risk the Postal Service will not address known security issues. 

Earlier this year, USPS called its existing arrow keys "antiquated" and said it would take an array of steps to improve employee safety. 

“Every postal employee deserves to work in safety and to be free from targeting by criminals seeking to access the public’s mail,” Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said.

USPS is also failing to keep track of its 360,000 arrow keys it has in circulation. In a select review of facilities earlier this year, the IG found 28% of arrow keys were missing. Supervisors are supposed to ensure each key is returned and accounted for on a daily basis, but not all were doing so. The IG called on the Postal Service to train its managers on arrow key policies and hold them accountable for implementation.

“If supervisors are not aware of or do not act to account for and report missing arrow keys to the Postal Inspection Service, there is an increased risk of mail theft continuing to occur,” the IG said. “These thefts damage the Postal Service’s reputation and diminish public trust in the nation’s mail system.”  

The Postal Inspection Service has set five goals for its mail theft strategic plan, including making delivery more secure, improving intelligence in investigations, boosting communications and awareness, investing in tools and analytics and increasing training. The IG called it “essential” for USPIS to finalize its plan “as soon as possible” to address the increases in mail theft. 

The auditors faulted USPIS for failing to determine its staffing needs throughout the country and noted the agency was generally below its authorized inspector levels over the last two years. USPIS is making decisions on an ad hoc basis at the division level, the IG said, but should be taking a more national approach. The watchdog further said very few employees working in mail theft had been trained specifically in that area. 

Higher rates of mail theft have garnered widespread attention, including from many members of Congress who have sounded the alarm and held hearings on the subject. Among its announced policy changes, USPS also said it is tightening controls of change of address requests to crack down on a surge in fraud in recent years.