Last Updated on August 4, 2023
When I was in my 20s, I moved to a small town. It was a peaceful, charming neighborhood with little worries about crime.
So imagine my surprise when I returned home to find evidence of an explosion inside our mailbox.
All our mail was destroyed, and the interior of our mailbox made it clear something had gone wrong. Evidence indicated some sort of fireworks had been set off inside.
We called the police and somehow managed to track it down to the kid who lived across the street.
A harmless prank? Not quite. It turns out that tampering with mail is a federal offense. Punishment can be fines and/or up to six months in jail.
Don’t worry. We didn’t send some kid to jail. But the officer did stop by the child’s house to let him know that setting off fireworks in mailboxes is serious stuff.
It was my first introduction to just how seriously the United States Postal Service takes its mail.
But unfortunately, scammers still risk it. Postal scams hit U.S. residents every day.
What are USPS Scams?
There’s no shortage of ways to communicate across the miles in 2023. You can send an email or text or place a phone call and instantly reach someone on the other side of the world.
There are even multiple ways to send letters and packages–UPS and FedEx, to name just two.
But the United States Postal Service has been responsible for getting mail from one location to the next for centuries. In fact, the USPS processes 44 percent of the world’s mail.
Of course, with that much responsibility, the USPS is a target for scammers.
There are a variety of postal scams, including fraudsters who send messages to trick you into clicking and criminals who tamper with mail in transit.
It’s tough to avoid USPS, even if you pay all your bills online and mail packages using UPS or FedEx. You’ll occasionally need to send something via the postal service, and you’ll definitely receive some mail each week (even if it’s all junk mail!).
To avoid falling victim, knowing exactly what types of USPS scams exist is important.
Credit: Trinity Nguyen
Types of USPS Scams
The postal service deals with so much fraud there’s a page on its website tracking the latest scams. Here are some of the most popular.
Failed Delivery Attempt Scams
What is it? Are you expecting a package right now? If you’re like me, there’s always at least one online purchase on the way. This scam preys on our steady stream of deliveries by sending a cryptic notification of a failed delivery attempt. The key is to get us to click on the link, at which point we either unknowingly download a virus or input some information that can be stolen.
How to spot it: The USPS does not notify customers about failed delivery attempts via email. You’ll receive a note in your mailbox or on your door with instructions. If you’ve signed up for text alerts, you may see notifications that way, but they will be short and to the point, including a tracking number and time for pickup. Fake emails and text alerts will typically include grammatical and spelling errors and use urgent language that isn’t typical of the USPS.
How to avoid it: Instead of clicking on the link in texts, input the tracking number in the message directly into the text box at USPS.com. If you do click on a link, never input information or enter usernames and passwords.
Package Tracking Scams
What is it? You get a text or email inviting you to track a package. Just click on this link to see where it is. When you click, you’re either asked to log in or to input information to verify your account.
How to spot it: The USPS will send tracking notices to your phone, but only if you specifically request it using the tracking number. This is per package, so you won’t automatically receive a notification when packages are sent to you. Also, these tracking notices will not contain a link.
How to avoid it: NEVER CLICK ON LINKS IN EMAILS AND TEXT MESSAGES. Instead, go directly to the source. If you receive a text inviting you to track the package, note the tracking number and go directly to the USPS website to track it.
Customer Satisfaction Survey Scams
What is it? With this scam, you get a message about a package, but this time it includes a link to a page that invites you to take a customer satisfaction survey. If you complete it, you might even win a prize. Of course, shipping isn’t included with the prize, so you’ll need to input your credit card number to pay for it. You provide the information, and the site captures it for the scammer to steal.
How to spot it: These days, every receipt at the post office has an invite to complete an online survey. So it’s not much of a stretch to believe the USPS might send over a customer survey request by text or email. But the truth is, the USPS doesn’t operate that way. The survey doesn’t include a prize…unless you consider knowing you’ve helped the post office rewarding.
How to avoid it: Never click on links in messages, whether they come via email or text. If you get a message that claims to be from USPS, use any tracking details in the message to trace the package at USPS.com.
What is it? If you’re pounding the pavement, looking for a job, the USPS might sound like a pretty good deal. You’ll get benefits and job security, and you’ll even earn a pension. But how do you get those jobs? This scam promises to land you a job with the USPS immediately. (As a former government employee, I can tell you, nothing is immediate!) In some cases, as you go through the steps to apply for the opportunity, you’re asked for an application fee. In all cases, the application process collects details that can be used for fraud.
How to spot it: The USPS is fairly transparent about its hiring process. If you’re interested in a job, you can browse the openings on its website and apply there. There’s even a helpful guide to getting a job with the USPS posted directly on its website. All applications go through a system called eCareers. If you aren’t applying there, you aren’t applying for a job with the USPS.
How to avoid it: Start your search for a job on the USPS website. You can view current openings and click over to eCareers to apply for any job that interests you. You can find information about salaries and benefits on the America Postal Workers Union website.
Credit: Mick Haupt
What is it? I was waiting in line at the post office a few weeks ago when a woman stepped up to the counter and asked for a change of address packet. “We don’t hand those out anymore,” the clerk said. “You have to do it online.” I wasn’t surprised until just now when I researched it and found that it’s not a nationwide policy. Some post offices are still handing out that Moving Packet. The problem is fraudsters have been using it to divert mail from one address to another. While the same scam can be committed through the USPS web portal, it’s not nearly as easy as filling out a form and walking away.
How to spot it: If you’re like me, it might take a little while to notice your mail has been diverted. I rarely get real mail anymore. It’s mostly coupons and flyers. But multiple weeks with an empty mailbox would definitely get my attention. USPS sends a confirmation letter to the original address when a change of address is filed. It’s important to watch your mail carefully and take action if you receive such a notice.
How to avoid it: Pay close attention to your mail, even if something looks like junk. You can also sign up for USPS Informed Delivery, so you’ll have email confirmation of the mail coming to your home every day.
Mail Theft Scams
What is it? At some point in my lifetime, I heard about criminals swiping checks from residential mailboxes, washing them, and depositing them into their own accounts. That was when I stopped leaving outgoing mail in my residential mailbox. But even dropping mail into those blue mailboxes is no guarantee they won’t be intercepted. In addition to the funds that can be taken, your personal checks have your bank account number, mailing address, and first and last name. That information can be gold to an identity thief.
How to spot it: If you’re monitoring your accounts, you should see the check posting. My bank lets me view scans of my checks, which is a great way to verify that the check I wrote is the one that was posted. You’ll also likely hear from the intended recipient of any mail that was stolen since it won’t arrive at its destination.
How to avoid it: Pay bills electronically, and if you have to mail something, take it to the post office. Avoid mailing sensitive items from your own residential mailbox. Consider eliminating paper checks as much as possible. If you do write checks, either use a checkbook that makes a carbon copy of every check you want or be meticulous about noting the date, amount, and recipient.
Keeping Scams Away
Have I made you hesitant to ever mail something again?
Don’t be. There are some simple steps you can take to safely use the United States Postal Service.
1. Use Informed Delivery
I can tell you what’s in my mailbox right now.
Nothing important, actually. Mostly junk mail, along with a package the Amazon delivery person stuffed into it.
How do I know this? For Amazon, it’s on my list of recent orders. But the USPS mail is scanned and emailed to me every morning.
What is this magic?
It’s called INFORMED DELIVERY, and you can set it up for your address. Staying on top of the mail you can expect each day is a great way to know immediately if something’s gone wonky with your mail.
Credit: Tareq Ismail
2. Avoid Public-Facing Mailboxes
How often do you pop something in the mail?
If you’re like me, the answer to that is “not very often.”
I pay for everything online. Even the bills that don’t have that option. You can set it up so that your bank mails a physical check if it’s a vendor that operates like it’s 1990.
Of course, the latter isn’t ideal. It’s still sending a paper check with your bank account information on it. But for everything else, paying online saves you a stamp and reduces the risk your payment will be intercepted.
If you have to mail something, take it to the post office and walk inside. At the very least, mail it from the box in the parking lot. Avoid those isolated blue boxes in random parking lots. They can be great targets.
If all that isn’t convenient enough, at least try to time your drop-offs so your mail will be picked up soon after you place it. The less time your mail spends in that box before a mail carrier picks it up, the better.
3. Use the Portal
There’s no reason to follow links in messages to track packages or get information about a delivery issue. Everything you need can be done through the USPS web portal.
All you need to do is set up an account, and you’ll be able to:
Once you’ve established an account, if you receive a weird message, simply log into the portal and see if you can figure out what’s going on from there.
What to Do if You’ve Been Scammed
Despite our efforts, sometimes a scammer gets the best of us. Here are some steps to take if you find yourself at the other end of a USPS scam.
1. Report It to the USPS
The postal service takes mail fraud seriously. There’s even a process for reporting it.
You can report mail theft, mail fraud, scam emails/texts, identity theft, and more at the United States Postal Inspection Service website.
If the fraud is specific to your local post office, be sure you stop by and let them know, too. If customers are at risk, the manager of that location will likely want to know.
2. Contact Your Bank
If your financial account numbers are part of the theft, you’ll need to alert your bank.
This mostly applies if your bank account number has been compromised or you’ve handed your credit card number over as part of a phishing scheme.
In some cases, though, the scammer gets enough information on you to commit identity theft. That’s when it’s time to start protecting your credit.
3. Keep an Eye on Your Credit Score
With the right information, a fraudster can do some serious damage.
If you think information like your Social Security or driver’s license number has been compromised, monitoring your credit report for a while is important.
You’re entitled to one free credit report a year through AnnualCreditReport.com.
Best of all, if you do suffer an identity theft incident, these services will help cover the cost.
4. Freeze Your Credit
Another proactive measure you can take is to FREEZE YOUR CREDIT. This temporary action will keep someone from applying for credit using your information.
You can freeze your credit with all three credit bureaus online. Once you’re someday ready to apply for credit again, you can unfreeze it by going to the same three sites.
Even after you’ve frozen your credit, keep an eye on things to ensure nothing slips through.
5. Prevent Future Scams
Whether you’ve been scammed or not, it’s important to put measures in place to keep yourself safe.
Reduce the amount of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) you send through the US Postal Service. That includes Social Security numbers, account and payment information, and vital statistics like your birthplace and date.
Try to conduct transactions online and set up automatic funds transfers where possible.
And, most importantly, never click on links in text and email messages.
It’s tough to avoid the USPS since we still rely on it for some of our communications. But the more you can do to keep your information out of mailboxes, the lower your risk of being scammed will be.
Avoid clicking on links in messages and keep your information safe; you should be able to keep identity theft at bay.
Other Scams You Should Look Out For: