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How I Captured Mail Thieves

By Irving Chao, 2018-11-01
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Courtesy: Irving Chao


As online shopping has become more and more popular, we routinely hear stories about missing mail and package thieves. After several reports of night time vehicle break-ins in our neighborhood and, after experiencing missing packages myself, I decided to set up cameras to catch some of these thieves. I was shocked to learn, through my cameras and mailbox door sensor, that our neighborhood is the target of mail thieves at least once a month and sometimes even twice a week. They usually drive through and check each mailbox at four or five in the morning, when everyone is asleep.


“Now how would I catch these guys?” I'd thought to myself. After some brainstorming, I came up with the perfect solution to set up bait in my mailbox. The bait would be a GPS tracking device hidden inside a portable cellphone charger equipped with a built-in solar panel! That way the thief would purposely leave the device in direct view of the sky, allowing for optimal GPS and cell reception and hopefully keeping the battery charged as long as possible.


Fast-forward to just a few days after building and setting the bait in my mailbox. I had just returned to my office after lunch and the device pinged my phone. “Locating Irving’s Mail,” it read. Is it really on the move, or just another false detection? “It's passing through each house one by one. Did the mailman accidentally take the bait!? No, he's already in another city!” I reasoned with myself, as my mind was racing. I called 911 to report the crime in progress. The operator was very confused. “So you put a GPS device in the mail and then someone took it??” she asked. I reported the license plate number, the make and model of the car, and the location.

Courtesy: Irving Chao

Courtesy: Irving Chao

I later arrived at the gas station where the thief was parked and watched as he was methodically sorting through stacks of papers, throwing out the window ones he did not care for. This time, I was on the phone with police officers, “His engine is starting! I'm gonna follow him.” My heart was now racing as I was secretly tailing a criminal and reporting his every move to the police. I could just imagine police cars pulling in from all directions, just like in the movies. He turned into an apartment complex and disappointingly, the officer asked me to return home. An hour later, I get a phone call. “We have two suspects in custody,” the officer told me. I went to retrieve my GPS device and had a chat with the officers. The two thieves were arrested at gunpoint in a self car wash stall. The minivan was full of stolen credit cards, mail, and a notebook containing social security numbers and other personal identifying information. The best part, the officer explained, “they even had their phones plugged into your charger when we arrested them!”

Courtesy: Irving Chao


Half a year later, I received a phone call from the Alameda County District Attorney’s office. I was asked if I would accept an award during a lunch at the annual District Attorney Muster. I accepted, then later attended the event, and thanked a room filled with hundreds of police officers for this award and their service to our community.