Robbers target mail carriers' keys to condo units

South Florida Sun SentinelSeptember 15, 2013 

FORT LAUDERDALE -- The gunman didn't want the mail carrier's packages or letters.

All he likely wanted was a key -- the one that could grant him entry to gated communities, condo buildings and access to hundreds of mailboxes in addition to a wealth of personal information stuffed inside stamped envelopes, postal investigators said

This time, the bad guy took the wrong key.

To the relief of many, the gunman who robbed the mail carrier in Pompano Beach this past week made off only with the keys to the mail truck.

Investigators believe it was the latest attempt to grab a hold of a mail carrier's coveted master key, which they say could potentially place thousands of mailboxes in jeopardy, if stolen.

"Every time we hear about one of these keys gone missing, we go 'oh my goodness,' because it just opens up a world of hurt for everybody," said Ivan J. Ramirez, a U.S. postal inspector in South Florida.

Ramirez said such robberies have tapered off in South Florida since a spate of them in 2011. Monday's robbery was the first such type of robbery of a mail carrier in Broward County this year and the second in South Florida since January.

"Thankfully they have slowed down, but as we get closer to tax season, everyone begins to get on pins and needles," he said.

The master key, also known as an arrow key, is specific to a mail carrier's route and a geographical area. The key is so guarded they are kept in locked vaults, and the carriers are made to sign for them.

The keys can open up the postal service's signature blue collection boxes, the mailbox panels at apartment and condo buildings, as well as gaining access to some gated communities and buildings.

In 2010, postal worker Bruce Parton, 60, of Pembroke Pines, was shot and killed while being robbed of a master key in north Miami-Dade County. Three men are now serving federal prison terms for their roles.

Since the killing, there have been 13 similar robberies in South Florida and seven master keys remain missing, Ramirez said.

Judy Willoughby, a Florida representative for the National Association of Letter Carriers, said her Washington, D.C.-based group plans to work with a joint safety task force in South Florida made up of postal and law enforcement officials to look at the problem and train carriers on how to avoid being robbed.

"It's a shame, because in the past, the letter carrier has always been that respected individual out there that nobody touched," she said. "We're telling people that if you see something wrong, just get out of there because it's really becoming a problem with those keys."

Ramirez said the robbers tend to bypass the valuables found in parcels and mailboxes and go for the master key. He said one of the main goals is to gather the personal information found in the mail in order to help commit identity theft.

However, because the keys also can open gates and buildings, a person could use the tool for more sinister purposes, Ramirez said.

In the most recent South Florida case, a man wearing a mask from the movie "Scream" robbed the carrier in Pompano Beach about 2:30 p.m. Monday.

The following day, inspectors canvassed the area with fliers offering a reward of up to $5,000 for the gunman's capture.

The master key wasn't stolen. Still, robbing a mail carrier is a federal offense. Possession of a master key also is a federal crime.

Residents should keep a watchful eye, Ramirez said. "It's about having people out there keeping their eyes and ears open and report anything that doesn't fit, what doesn't look right," Ramirez said.

USPS TIPS

• Be vigilant

• The U.S. Postal Inspection Service recommends using a stand-alone mailbox and to place a lock on it. That's because criminals prefer targeting mail that is easier to steal.

• In the event a master key is stolen in your area, residents are urged to notify their creditors, financial institutions and other financial agencies what has occurred and have them place an alert on their accounts for any unusual activity.

Robbery statistics

In 2012, the U.S. Postal Service reported 83 robberies or attempted robberies of postal employees, contractors or post offices across the country. Postal inspectors arrested 53 suspected robbers during that period and reported 55 convictions, from cases stemming from previous years.

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