South Florida mail carrier Travis Garris didn't consider postal delivery a high-risk occupation – until a carrier filling in on Garris' day off was assaulted on his route earlier this year.
That incident was only one in a string of harrowing incidents involving letter carriers being robbed for their "arrow key"— a master key they use to unlock mailboxes at apartment complexes, cluster box units, and collection boxes.
While Garris, who has been on the job for 9 years, had anecdotally heard of postal workers being robbed on rare occasions, it was an infrequent occurrence and something he never fathomed could happen on his route – until it did.
"Being the sole provider of the household, I'm really starting to think, 'Do I want to continue on with this job?'" he said. "It has come to a point where these robberies are actually happening on a regular basis."
The problem isn't just exclusive to Florida, either. Thousands of postal carriers have been assaulted or robbed during the past several years, according to U.S. Postal Inspection Service data. Last month, six mail carriers in the D.C. and Maryland area were targeted in a 24-hour span.
A recent investigation by NBC 4-Washington found that more than 2,000 assaults or robberies of postal carriers had occurred since 2020.
The rise in attacks against carriers comes as complaints about mail theft also have soared. According to the inspector general for USPS, mail theft complaints increased by 161% from March 2020 to February 2021.
"At this point, armed robberies of USPS letter carriers and mail theft are the norm, rather than the exception," Postal Police Officers Association President Frank Albergo said.
He believes a "perfect storm" is responsible for creating the uptick in crimes against carriers, which have more than tripled during the past few years.
Data obtained by NBC News in April found that the number of letter carrier robberies nationwide jumped from 80 in 2018 to 261 in 2021. The number of armed robberies reported also increased, quadrupling from 36 in 2018 to 154 in 2021.
To combat "fishing mail"— a scheme in which criminals place a "sticky apparatus" such as a rat trap down a mail chute to "fish out mail" – Albergo said the Postal Service began to harden the blue collection boxes several years ago.
But making the boxes more secure forced criminals to figure out other means, and that led to the realization that mail carriers have "universal" keys that give them access to "every mailbox in a certain zip code."
Instead of nabbing "a few letters out of a blue collection box," Albergo said criminals learned that stealing an arrow key could allow them to steal all the mail in a collection box.
Once thieves secure the mail, they often use it to steal identities, cash checks, or even sell the mail on the internet to the highest bidder.
But as more mail carriers were suddenly targeted for their coveted arrow keys, Albergo said the number of postal police officers assigned to patrol areas prone to mail theft and attacks was reduced. The agency, as part of a broader labor dispute, pulled its uniformed police officers off city streets.
In August 2020, he said the Postal Service essentially "defunded its own uniformed police force in the midst of a mail theft epidemic" after it reinterpreted a statute regarding mail route patrols.
He likened the move to cops being restricted to working in their station houses and not hitting the streets even though it's known that the presence of a "uniformed cop is the most important deterrent to crime."
It's a decision that many believe emboldened mail thieves, who know letter carriers are now left unescorted.
"We are basically sitting ducks," Garris said.
Because USPS workers are federal employees, Garris said they are unable to carry a firearm for personal protection while working, even if they have a concealed weapons permit.
"We are not allowed to defend ourselves," he said.
With the number of assaults against mail carriers on the rise, he fears "it's not a matter of if, but a matter of when" he could be a victim.
After an armed robbery occurred in his area earlier this month, he said some mail carriers are "genuinely afraid" to come to work.
During staff meetings, he said employees are told to "keep their head on swivel," to call the police if they think they are being tailed, and to give the robber whatever they demand since property can be replaced but people can't be.
Garris said he recognizes that postal police can't follow every carrier on every route and that local police can't be everywhere. He said it would certainly be comforting, however, to see a stronger police presence on his mail route.
"If they come up to us and assure us they are having an eye on us, it would make more of us feel safer," Garris said.
In South Florida, USPS is offering rewards of up to $50,000 for any information that leads to the arrest and conviction of mail thieves in any of the six cases that have taken place in recent months.
In a statement to Newsmax, a spokesperson for the Postal Service Inspection Service, the law enforcement arm of USPS, said the agency works to "ensure America's confidence in the U.S. Mail by enforcing more than 200 federal laws in investigations of crimes that may adversely affect postal employees or fraudulently use the U.S. Mail or the postal system."
"The U.S. Postal Inspection Service considers the security and sanctity of mail one of its highest priorities," the agency said. "Like the rest of the nation, crimes have increased, and the Postal Service has not been immune to it. However, the Postal Inspection Service takes seriously its role to safeguard America and will continue to aggressively pursue perpetrators who use the U.S. Mail system to further their illegal activity."
Marisa Herman, a Newsmax senior reporter, focuses on major and investigative stories. A University of Florida graduate, she has more than a decade of experience as a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and websites.
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