The cluster mailbox outside Terry Murphys marketing firm was his financial lifeline. Its where hed receive checks from clients all over the US.
And then last fall, in the overnight hours, thieves armed with a master key opened the cluster box, stole his mail, and forged the checks ripping off him and the companies he does business with.
We came very close to losing clients over this. If we lost clients, we lost clients, I would have had to lay people off, Murphy, the CEO of strategic marketing, said. We have had hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of checks washed that were supposed to end up in this office. Im sure theres been millions of dollars across the country.
The U.S. Treasury Departments Financial Crimes Enforcement Network reports the number of check fraud cases doubled from 2021-2022. That surge is attributed in part to a rise in mailbox theft.
I know of 10 individual incidents that I have witnessed, said Bob MacDonald, the CEO of Omni Telecommunications, whose business is in a West Palm Beach office park.
MacDonald witnessed videos from cameras his company installed and pointed at the cluster mailbox outside his office.
Theyre driving some really nice cars, MacDonald said with a laugh as he recounted what he saw on the videos of a mailbox theft. Theyre driving BMWs and Mercedes. Generally, its a different vehicle every time.
WPTV Investigative Reporter Dave Bohman asked MacDonald if it surprised him that these thieves drove luxury cars.
No, it doesnt because of the amount of money theyre getting away with, he said.
Its different cars that show up to steal every night, Murphy, whose office is about four miles away from MacDonalds firm, said.
Murphy blames the U.S. Postal Service for its system of master keys used by postal workers.
The Postal Service confirmed one key opens all the cluster mail boxes in a given region.
I would think the first thing is they would want to change the locks on those boxes, MacDonald said.
MacDonald has been critical of the postal service for not changing its system at cluster mail boxes.
There are solutions that are really easy. Change the locks would be the obvious one, Murphy added.
He also believes postal carriers should bring the mail directly to businesses and do away with the cluster mailboxes.
I know people are frustrated with the key system and we do know that sometimes has been a problem, but we have done things to prevent the mail from being stolen from that master key system, U.S. Postal Inspection Service fraud investigator Blanca Alvarez said. I cant go into detail, but were doing things like trying to change the locks. I know the customers want immediate action and we are acting.
Alvarez points to the Postal Inspection Services work with Delray Beach police in the recent arrest of five men charged with robbing mailboxes with a stolen master key and check washing.
She added the Postal Service plans to replace the master keys it labels antiquated with electronic locks at nearly 50,000 cluster mailboxes around the U.S.
But the agency hasnt said which clusters will get the electronic locks, or when the changes will happen for the office parks that want them.
And to many of the thousands of businesses that get mail delivered to cluster mailboxes, owners feel vulnerable as long as their postal lifelines can be opened by a master key.
We try to protect the sanctity of the mail, Alvarez said. And were working on a daily basis to address the issue and make sure these criminals are caught so they dont do it again.
Alvarez said businesses that rely on cluster boxes need to empty their mailboxes at the end of every day.
Murphy has given up on the postal service. He now sends pre-paid package envelopes to his clients for sending their checks.
UPS and FedEx, so that we can actually know that our checks are going to get here without being stolen, he said.
And many other businesses wont feel their mail is safe until the master key system is phased out.