Ever wonder how the U.S. Postal Service investigates a potential rogue mail carrier—someone who's peeking into your card not to see what a relative said about your birthday but to grab any cash?
Here are the tools, as described in court documents in a Washington federal district court case: "Test letters," physical surveillance, undercover post office boxes and electronic tracking devices.
The Postal Service earlier this year received a bunch of complaints about missing packages and letters in one neighborhood in the District. An investigation revealed that a carrier named Ronald Pretlow was assigned to the route where the residents were complaining.
This summer, investigators inserted two "test letters"—cards addressed to homes that did not exist--in Pretlow's mail bag. Internal rules require mail carriers to write "no such number" on the letter and return it to the post office from which it was received. The postal service is supposed to send the mail back to the return address.
In Pretlow's case, the return address was an undercover post office box controlled by the postal service's Office of the Inspector General. The letters given to Pretlow were greeting cards that contained gift cards to Target.
The two letters, according to investigators, never made it to the undercover box. Three days later, two women redeemed the Target cards. Investigators were allowed to watch Target surveillance video.
Investigators said a witness, in August, reported seeing a mail carrier, sitting in a postal service vehicle, opening mail. The witness told authorities the carrier used tape to repackage opened mail.
That same month, investigators gave Pretlow another test letter. The card, like the others, had an invalid address. The birthday card—in a blue envelope with a balloon by the address—contained $16. The card never made it to the undercover post office box, investigators said.
In September, investigators put together a fourth test letter. This time, they included an "electronic-tracking beeper device." The device, according to court papers, was attached to $20—a ten-dollar bill, one five and five ones—inside the card. Investigators recorded the serial numbers with the hope of later finding the cash with Pretlow.
Steven Mason, a special agent with the postal service's inspector general, said in an affidavit that "if the money was removed from the envelope, the receiver would begin rapidly beeping."
Mason and other special agents secretly watched Pretlow all day, staying in close range of him. The agents' receiver continued to slowly beep, "indicating that it was within the range of the test letter but that it had not been opened yet."
Pretlow, later that day, returned to his designated post office and got into his personal vehicle. Agents said Pretlow still had the test letter—and the tracking device—with him. The letter, however, according to investigators, had not been opened.
"When Pretlow drove away, the beeping stopped on the receiver because the tracking device was beyond the reach of the receiver’s signal," Mason's said in the affidavit.
Pretlow was arrested the next morning he showed up to work. Investigators said they recovered the $20 from the card that contained the tracking device.
A one-count information, charging mail theft, was filed today in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against Pretlow.
A lawyer for Pretlow, Patrick Christmas of Silver Spring, Md., was not immediately reached for comment this afternoon. The assistant U.S. attorney assigned to the case, Christopher Kavanaugh, also was not immediately reached for comment.