13 Investigates: Postal union says packages at risk as 600 USPS workers robbed last year

Thursday, April 25, 2024
Union says packages at risk as 600 USPS workers robbed last year
13 Investigates speaks with Houston postal worker robbed of mail key. Our investigation found he among 600 carriers robbed last year alone in the U.S.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- It was just like any other day when USPS postal worker Ulysses Wells was working an overtime shift and arrived at a cluster of mailboxes last summer to deliver mail on his Houston route.

Except this time, he said he didn't realize he was being watched.

"My focus is on getting the mail together, trying to get off work, trying to hurry, things of that nature," Wells told 13 Investigates' Kevin Ozebek. "You're not thinking about anything else."

Then, Wells said someone wearing a face mask demanded he hand over his universal mail key.

As 13 Investigates' continues looking into postal problems, our investigator Kevin Ozebek speaks with a woman whose certified letter was stolen. Watch her story at 6 p.m. Thursday on ABC13.

"I didn't hesitate. Obviously, he knows what he wants. He's probably willing to do anything to get this key. I better give him the key," Wells said. "I want to make it home. I want to live. I don't want to be shot. I don't want to be stabbed. It was scary. It was frightening. It was traumatic. I mean, it was all those that you think about, or you see when you look at those movies or something because you would think that this is not real."

After working for USPS for years, Wells said he was in disbelief after the thief and two others stole his cellphone, USPS key, and mail from his postal vehicle in broad daylight.

Wells said he believes he was targeted for his universal arrow key. He said thieves can do "unlimited" damage with the key because it provides access to all cluster boxes within a designated area, most of which don't have any security cameras overseeing them.

"They had a team, so I assume they already had this planned, what they were going to do, how they were going to do it, and I guess maybe if they needed to, they could all just jump me," he said.

13 Investigates asked USPS about the attack on Wells, but they declined our request for an interview.

Through a federal open records request, our investigative team learned last year alone that more than 600 mail carriers were robbed across the country.

Shawn Boyd, a Houston-area agent with the National Association of Letter Carriers, said there's not enough being done to protect mail carriers.

He also said attacks on postal workers should concern everyone because, in addition to traumatizing employees, it puts residents' packages and private information at risk. But, he said there's just not enough investigators looking into these federal crimes.

"When there's any type of mail theft, folks can be harmed in all kinds of ways. We're talking about identity theft, we're talking about theft of prescription drugs that come through the mail. ... Packages, that's always a big deal," he said. "We need to put some law back in a lawless area right now."

RELATED: 13 Investigates finds just 91 postal inspectors in Texas despite thousands of mail theft complaints

Boyd said there's not enough prosecution when it comes to mail carriers who are attacked on the job, including one Texas postal worker who was robbed by someone pointing an AK-47 at them.

"We have to take away what these criminals are looking for. We've got to de-incentivize these robberies. That would be ideal. We also have to have more prosecutions, and that's where the Department of Justice has to step up and that may take legislation to help them prioritize it," Boyd said. "We also need the postal inspectors to prioritize investigating these types of crimes. There's more crimes than they can investigate right now, and we've got to figure out a way to make this a bigger issue for them, because people's lives are at stake. We need the postal service to ensure that they're going to keep their employees safe and right now, they're not there."

Last month, the Protect Our Letter Carriers Act was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives. The bipartisan legislation, if approved, would provide $7 billion in funding to USPS to make mail collection boxes more secure and could help increase prosecution rates for mail-related crime.

"They're trying to answer something the best they can, but the reality is that we're all moving too slowly on this, and people are getting hurt," Boyd said. "We've got letter carriers that have been shot and killed over the past few years in different areas of the country, and some large drug rings or different things. Those are the things that (investigators) look for. (Attacks on surviving carriers) is such a small scale item that I don't think they drill down to the level they need to for it because they don't have enough employees, but the prioritization needs to be there."

USPS sent us a press release touting that attacks on carriers are up 73% and that "28,000 electronic locking mechanisms," or digital arrow keys, have replaced physical arrow keys.

When we asked them how many of those digital arrow keys are in Texas, making carriers safer, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service rejected our request, citing that information creates a security risk.

Boyd said he isn't unaware of any digital arrow keys that have been implemented in the Houston area and says that's just one of many things that need to be prioritized to keep mail and carriers safe.

"In the past it was a job that people didn't worry so much about. The community looked out for you, and law enforcement looked out for you as well as the job," he said. "I think it's really dangerous now because we're out on the street more often and due to staffing levels that puts us more at risk as well, but also just the ability of the someone with ill intent to go out there and do something and not feel like that they're going to get prosecuted fully for anything if they get caught."

Wells said he took about three weeks off after being attacked before returning to his USPS delivery route, and the first day back was emotional.

"It's time for us to make some updates. It's time for us to make some changes. It's time to sit down with the people out here actually doing this job, and let's do something to make sure we improve the safety for these people who are out there taking this risk every day, delivering these packages in this mail," Wells said.

For updates on this story, follow Kevin Ozebek on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

13 Investigates mail concerns

(On mobile? You can open our form by tapping here.)