Our objective was to assess the Postal Inspection Service’s response to mail fraud and mail theft during the COVID-19 pandemic. After we began the audit, we received a congressional request from seven members of Congress asking us to identify what actions, if any, the Postal Inspection Service had taken to address the increase in mail theft during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On March 13, 2020, the President of the United States issued a national emergency declaration concerning the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). We assessed the actions that the Postal Inspection Service took to address mail fraud and mail theft that occurred from March 2020 through February 2021.
Postal inspectors are responsible for investigating complaints of mail fraud and mail theft committed by non-postal employees, even if the fraud originated over the phone or via the internet. In March 2020, the Postal Inspection Service created four mail fraud and mail theft program areas to help postal inspectors prioritize cases in response to the COVID19 pandemic. The program areas are (1) Economic Impact Payment Protection and Theft, (2) COVID-19 Consumer Fraud, (3) Hoarding and Price Gouging, and (4) Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act Fraud.
The Postal Inspection Service uses the Fraud Complaint System to record mail fraud complaints and the Financial Crimes Database to record mail theft complaints. From March 2020 through February 2021, the Postal Inspection Service received 40,727 mail fraud complaints and 299,020 mail theft complaints. When the Postal Inspection Service determines a mail fraud or mail theft complaint is within its jurisdiction and actionable, the complaint is assigned to an existing case, or a new case is opened to investigate. From March 2020 through February 2021, the Postal Inspection Service opened a total of 753 mail fraud cases — an increase of 170 cases (29 percent) over the prior 12 months — and opened 1,090 mail theft cases — a decrease of 49 cases (4 percent) over the prior 12 months. Of those opened cases, 216 (29 percent) mail fraud cases and 61 (6 percent) mail theft cases were related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Overall, we found that the Postal Inspection Service took appropriate action to respond to mail fraud and mail theft during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the Mail Fraud Program employees participated in federal task forces to investigate and disrupt COVID-19 related scams. Postal inspectors also coordinated with law enforcement agencies when Economic Impact Payment checks were mailed to help prevent mail theft.
In addition, Postal Inspection Service Headquarters provided guidance on the four mail fraud and mail theft program areas created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, communicated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, and distributed personal protective equipment to the 17 Postal Inspection Service divisions to ensure postal inspectors’ safety. However, opportunities exist for the Postal Inspection Service to document best practices for use in future health crises and improve the accuracy of customer complaint data.
We found that the Postal Inspection Service’s actions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were not guided by an existing plan for how to maintain and provide essential law enforcement services during a health crisis. While the Postal Inspection Service has Integrated Emergency Management Plans to mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from natural disasters or man-made hazards, these plans do not address health crises.
Postal Inspection Service management stated that they will conduct an interim review to determine lessons learned to develop a response plan. By documenting the best practices they identify from their review of the COVID-19 pandemic response, the Postal Inspection Service will be better prepared to ensure continuity of law enforcement operations through consistent messaging and guidance to postal inspectors during future pandemics.
The Postal Inspection Service’s Financial Crimes Database contains mail theft complaints. We found that Financial Crimes Database data for 98 percent of open complaints transferred correctly when transmitted from the Postal Service’s Customer 360 (C360) platform to the database. However, data for 1,865 of 84,056 (2 percent) open complaints did not transfer correctly. For example, data from the “Address” field appears in the “Name” field. This issue occurred because the data transfer process for sending customer complaint data from C360 to the Postal Inspection Service was not correctly implemented when the Postal Service deployed the C360 platform.
Per Postal Service policy, information resources must be installed and maintained in a manner that ensures the integrity of the information and its data. If information issued or released has been modified in any way, recipients must be notified about the nature of the modification.
Postal Inspection Service management stated they are currently working with the Postal Service to correct the transfer of data between C360 and the database. In the interim, the Postal Inspection Service has to manually correct customer complaint data after it is transferred from C360. Postal Inspection Service management also did not communicate the database issues to postal inspectors. However, during our audit, management took corrective action to communicate to inspectors about these data modifications; therefore, we are not making a recommendation on this issue. Accurate and complete complaint data is important to ensure the quality of an investigation and to support decisions about where to direct resources.
We also found that the Fraud Complaint System displayed a minor inaccuracy related to the total mail fraud complaints recorded in the system. This issue occurred because of a coding error in the system that caused the total number of exported complaints to differ from the total amount displayed. During our audit, management took corrective action by fixing the system to ensure the total number of complaints displayed matched the total number of complaints exported; therefore, we are not making a recommendation on this issue.
We recommend management:
- Document best practices from the Postal Inspection Service’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in an after-action report for use in future health crises.
- Ensure customer complaint data sent from Customer 360 to the Financial Crimes Database is accurate by correcting the data transfer issues.