When people think about federal law enforcement officers, they probably think about FBI and ATF agents. There’s been a whole other group of federal officers around since 1775, though, and every year they arrest more than 5,000 people.
The U.S. Postal Inspection service was created by Ben Franklin when he was the postmaster general. The service is often referred to as the “silent service” because it is one of the lesser known law enforcement agencies, said Dan Grossenbach, a postal inspector based in Tucson.
It might fly under the radar, but the agency investigates a long list of crimes. In addition to investigating mail thefts and mail fraud, the postal inspectors investigate when drugs, weapons, explosives and other hazardous materials are caught being sent through the mail.
They also conduct inquiries when child pornography goes through the mail and when on-duty postal employees are threatened or assaulted.
Agents go through a 12½ week accredited law enforcement training academy in Potomac, Maryland.
Grossenbach doesn’t have local or state statistics, but according to the service’s 2017 fiscal report, mail theft and mailed drug cases made up a majority of the 5,300 cases it investigated that year.
The third-highest category involved assaults and threats against postal employees. There were 626 such cases investigated in FY2017 and 259 arrests.
“Postal employees are some of the few people who actually interact with everybody in the U.S. The mail goes everywhere and, unfortunately, by the numbers, they encounter someone who, for whatever reason, is unhappy with them, irrational or unhealthy, and will threaten them,” Grossenbach said. “Just the threat alone could be a felony and prosecuted.”
The Tucson postal inspector “domicile” currently has four agents who are responsible for conducting investigations in the southern half of the state, Grossenbach said.
Those arrested by postal inspectors can be prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Arizona Attorney General’s Office or the Pima County Attorney’s Office, he said. Which office prosecutes depends upon that office’s priorities and whether the defendant also committed crimes under state statutes.
Currently, the U.S. Department of Justice is trying to crack down on criminals who are specifically targeting the elderly, Grossenbach said.
One common scam is the Sweetheart scam, which involves the bad guy convincing the victim they are in love and then using their emotions to bilk them out of large sums of money.
“They don’t care about the person they are manipulating at all,” Grossenbach said. “In one case in California I had a gal go to the airport because her ‘boyfriend’ was flying in from Nigeria and she needed to pick him up. Twice she went and there was nobody there.”
Grossenbach said he also investigates a lot of cases in which people receive letters in the mail telling them they’ve won a lottery or sweepstake, but they have to pay some sort of fee to claim their prize.
Mail fraud cases tend to take a lot of time because agents must look through a lot of financial, mailing and phone records, plus there are often multiple victims and suspects in various locations, he said. There is a lot of coordination between inspectors and other law enforcement agencies.
According to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service website, an investigation by postal inspectors and the Department of Justice lead Western Union and Money Gram to return almost $600 million to people victimized by money transfers to fraudulent foreign lottery, sweepstakes, online dating and advance fee scams in 2017.
Less common investigations are those in which explosives, bombs and hazardous materials are mailed.
According to the service, 19 such cases were investigated in FY 2017. In fall 2017, two people were injured in the San Francisco area by package bombs and in March 2018, two people were killed and five injured in the Austin area by another set of mailed bombs.
Last fall, 16 mail bombs were sent to high profile Congressional Democrats, members of the media and people in the entertainment industry. The FBI and U.S. Postal Inspectors worked together and arrested Cesar Sayoc.
Since 2001, roughly 1,500 people have been arrested throughout the U.S. for mailing items as a hoax, Grossenbach said. For example, people have been prosecuted for mailing someone a white powder, hoping they’ll think it’s anthrax.
Mail theft cases are “mainly opportunity crimes,” Grossenbach said.
The bad guys knows most people trust the mail to send checks, cash and other valuables and try to exploit that, he said.
Many are drug addicts driven to desperation in order to feed their habit, but there are also career criminals who make plans and steal the mail to support themselves, he said.
Grossenbach said he was reluctant to discuss many of the ways in which inspectors catch criminals, but he said the service has computer forensic experts throughout the U.S. and a forensics lab in Virginia that is staffed by handwriting, DNA, fingerprint and explosives experts.
And again, just like other law enforcement officers, inspectors have stake-outs and plant surveillance cameras, he said.
There is no such thing as a typical day at the office, Grossenbach said. An inspector might be working on several types of different cases only to be interrupted by a high priority case, such as an assault on a postal employee.
“It’s not quite as hectic perhaps as if you’re a patrol unit on the streets of Tucson chasing down people and going from one scene to the next, but it’s similar in the sense that we don’t know how the day’s going to go,” he said.
Plus, like with any other law enforcement officer, they are regularly preparing for trials with prosecutors and testifying in court.
Postal inspectors are also expected to give crime prevention presentations to civic organizations and educate postal employees on spotting suspicious packages.
Because so many people don’t know about the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, they often don’t call to report mail fraud or mail theft, Grossenbach said. As a result, investigations are often delayed.
There are some cases that just “stick with” inspectors, Grossenbach said.
He’ll never forget the man in California who committed suicide after losing his house in a Home Affordability Refinance Program fraud case. Or the man’s wife.
“This wrecks people’s lives. It takes away their loved ones, their lives literally, their life savings, and it’s hard to emotionally detach from that kind of thing,” he said.
“It motivates me,” he added. “I’ve also interviewed child victims of child pornography. I’m sitting face-to-face with a young person who can never undo what has been done and not at their fault. There are going to be pictures of them floating around the Internet or people’s scrapbooks who have collected these obscene, profane, wicked images. That kind of thing will stick with them a long time.”
On the positive side, Grossenbach said he’ll also never forget helping a Tucson woman recover the cremains of her father, which had been stolen.
“There are some pieces of mail that are just irreplaceable,” he said.