Residents who are paying their bills by check and dropping them into USPS mailboxes in Astoria should be extra careful, according to Captain Peter Fortune, commanding officer of the 114th Precinct.
A group of people, mostly from the Bronx, has been stealing checks from local mailboxes, according to the commander. The perpetrators then change the name of the receiver and the dollar amount, Fortune said at the 114th Precinct Community Council meeting on Tuesday.
“They’re going to those blue postal boxes that you drop your Verizon payment in or mortgage payment in or whatever it is you’re paying via check, and they will go in and they will literally fish out the mail,” Fortune said.
The group uses acetone to wash out the ink and fills the check in with the name of a person with a valid bank account. The group will also sometimes change the amount on the check.
“Your $1,000 Verizon check just turned into a $7,000 check,” Fortune said.
However, sometimes the perpetrators will not change the amount on the checks so that people who have their money stolen do not get suspicious.
The 114th Precinct is coordinating with Bronx precincts to try to catch the perpetrators. Precincts in the Bronx worked with the postal inspector to install new mailboxes that have very narrow openings to make it impossible for perpetrators to steal checks. Fortune said they are hoping those mailboxes will be installed in Queens soon.
He added that a “tremendous amount of people” are involved in the investigation but that the crime pattern is difficult to stop because cops are not sure how the check recipients with legitimate bank accounts are involved.
“We’re trying to figure out how they’re connected to this crew,” Fortune said. “But here’s the problem. Their defense is, ‘Well, I didn’t know it was a stolen check. This is me, this is my bank account.'”
The 114th Precinct made an arrest two months ago and the perpetrators told officers that they were stopped by a car in the Bronx and asked if they would like to make some money. The two men were driven to Queens and instructed to steal checks from mailboxes.
The suspects usually walk into a bank, deposit the check into an account and then cash it before it goes through the clearing process. This is also becoming a borough-wide problem, the commanding officer said.
Crime prevention officers are trying to collect a large quantity of pigmented gel-based pens that will not wash out with acetone and distribute them to residents in the future, Fortune said.
He also said the precinct had “an excellent summer” in terms of crime stats and that even though crime from Aug. 29 to Sept. 25, 2015, to the same time this year has stayed flat, crime in several major categories has decreased.
Major crimes including murder, robbery, grand larceny and stolen cars have decreased. The precinct has seen a 67 percent decrease in murder since last year with two murders compared to six.
There is a 55 percent decrease in shootings since last year and the four housing developments in the 114th Precinct have experienced none.
“Historically speaking, a lot of our violence does stem from these four developments,” Fortune said. “We haven’t taken shootings all year in public housing.”
Robberies are down 12 percent; the incidents of stolen cars are down 33 percent; and grand larcenies are down 2 percent.
Though burglaries are up 37 percent since last year, the precinct is on track to have the lowest number of burglaries ever recorded.
“We’re doing a tremendous job in burglaries,” Fortune said.
The precinct will continue to inspect the list of parolees and burglary recidivists living in the area to try to combat the uptick, he said.