10/30/2014 06:34 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

'You've Got Mail!' Why Your Mail Still Matters to Identity Thieves

By Neal O'Farrell, Security and Identity Theft Expert for

No matter what kind of crime it is, every crime has at least one essential element. If you're a bank robber, you need at least a bank. If you're burglar, homes. If you're a pickpocket, at the very least you're going to need a pocket. And plenty of them.

If you're an identity thief, you're going to need information. And not necessarily a lot of it. Information is probably one of the reasons identity theft is the top crime. There is so much of it, it's very easy to find and use, and in many cases is a remote crime. You don't have to be anywhere near your victims in order to rip them off.

And one of the reasons why there's so much information in circulation is all because of something as low tech as mail. This year I've spent a lot more time in the company of thieves than is probably good for me, and the one theme that kept coming up was how much they still depend on mail theft to survive and thrive.

Ray has been described as the most dangerous identity thief in America. In spite of being a skilled hacker — he's worked for AT&T, Cisco and even one of the top spy agencies — he says that even today he finds mail the easiest way to steal identities.

According to Ray:

Mail theft is probably 80 percent of consumer fraud. I'd find people who are hard-up for money. They're not real criminals. Or they don't consider stealing out of mailboxes makes them a criminal. So I would give them $400-$500 and they'd steal me trash bags full of mail. And I'd even give them a car to do it in, usually a rental car I got with a stolen identity and never gave back.

He continued, "It's just so easy with mail theft. You don't have to be a hacker. You don't have to talk to anybody, you don't have to trick anybody, you know what I mean? You just open a mailbox."

And even the best identity thieves think your mail is such a gold mine; they'll sometimes camp in front of your house until they get what they need. Like Angela. Angela admits to stealing millions of dollars through identity theft over 30 years, and yet she was never once charged or even arrested. "Social Security numbers became difficult because they stopped using the entire Social Security number," she said.

But what you could do was go to several different sources and get all the right parts of the Social Security number. Or if you really felt that you had a good person that you could really get a lot from, you would then stalk their house and get their Social Security number from their mail.

Another thief pointed out that America was made for identity theft, and in particular because of mail. If you think about it, in most communities mail is not delivered directly to the home. Instead it's left on the side of the street. And if mail is money to a thief, it's just like leaving stacks of cash on the side of the street. To make things even easier for thieves, this cash is left in a mailbox that's exactly the right height so the thief doesn't even have to get out of his car (his stolen rental car). He or she just rolls down the window and steals your life.

If you don't want people like Ray or Angela stalking your home, then guard your mail:

  • If you can, bring it in as soon as it's delivered. Every minute your mail sits by the curb is another opportunity for a thief to disappear with it. And it only takes a minute.
  • If you live in a rural area, consider using a locking mailbox. It's not fool-proof, but it can be a deterrent.
  • Never, ever leave mail out to be collected. That little red flag that tells the mail carrier that "you've got mail" also tells thieves that it's time to get to work.

This post originally appeared on Neal O'Farrell, Credit Sesame's Security and Identity Theft Expert, is one of the most experienced consumer-security experts on the planet. Over the last 30 years he has advised governments, intelligence agencies, Fortune 500 companies and millions of consumers on identity protection, cybersecurity and privacy. As Executive Director of the Identity Theft Council, Neal has personally counseled thousands of identity-theft victims, taken on cases referred to him by the FBI and Secret Service, and interviewed some of the nation's most notorious identity thieves.