Last month, Needham police and the U. S. Postal Service took the unusual step of advising residents to stop using town mailboxes and drop off their mail only inside the post office. This was in response to a growing problem with so-called mailbox fishing and check-washing. Thieves have been using wire or string and adhesive to pull mail from mailboxes in Needham and surrounding towns to find checks or other valuable documents and either use them for identity theft or to deposit them fraudulently. 

Usually, unless perpetrators are caught in the act, it’s a hard crime to stop and even harder to locate the criminals after the fact. But every once in a while there are successes. In July, Needham police tracked down and caught one of the check-washers operating in town who is believed to be part of a larger ring operating locally. 

On July 18, an Elmwood Road resident reported that a check he had written was washed and subsequently cashed and that the intended recipient never received the check, according to police reports. 

At that point, according to Needham police Chief John Schlittler, a quick investigation by one officer allowed police to set up surveillance, figure out what happened with the check, and nab the perpetrator the next day at the UPS facility in Norwood, where he was awaiting delivery of fraudulently purchased items. The resident did not lose any money as a result of the operation. 

“Officer Nicole McMahon was working this incident, and she actually did a really, really good job in following up, and they were able to get a tracking number for the check,” said Schlittler. “And then they were able to track that and work with the Norwood police and the Norwood detective unit. And they set up and did some surveillance at the UPS facility, and they were able to identify the person when they came in.”

A 33-year-old Los Angeles man was charged with identity fraud, attempted larceny by check, and motor vehicle statutes related to falsifying an operator’s license or other identification. 

Schlittler said the man is part of one of several groups targeting this area, with centralized operations and a sophisticated system. 

“There are ringleaders in terms of people that run the operation, and they just send the people out to different locations at different times,” Schlittler said. “They use rental cars, stolen cars, stolen plates, so it’s pretty sophisticated to the extent that they put a lot of effort into it. Because obviously, there’s a lot of gain with it, and it’s financially impactful for them. So they’re going to stay with it as long as they can.”

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