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For nearly 20 years, Marsha Billock-Strahm drove the roads of rural Carey, Ohio, delivering the mail - birthday cards, catalogues, and masses of credit-card applications.
This week in federal court, the longtime letter carrier was charged with stealing some of the mail she was entrusted to deliver and fraudulently opening credit cards in the names of some of those on her rural route.
Billock-Strahm, 48, was indicted in U.S. District Court in Toledo on one count of aggravated identity theft, four counts of false credit-card applications, five counts of identity theft, and one count of theft of mail.
Authorities allege that over a four-month period in 2008, Billock-Strahm opened four credit cards in two names on her route by filling out the preapproved credit-card applications that were sent to their homes. Using the credit cards and the credit-card convenience checks, Billock-Strahm made several transactions totaling $12,573, the indictment alleges.
She then covered her tracks by intercepting the credit cards and statements as they came in, Assistant U.S. Attorney Seth Uram said.
"The postal service has a unit that investigates improper conduct by postal service employees," he said. "They expeditiously investigated this and it resulted in this indictment."
Identity theft is an increasingly growing crime, experts say, especially in an economy where people are looking to supplement their income. According to identity-theft protection companies, someone falls victim to identity theft once every three seconds.
What creates such a concern about the allegations against Billock-Strahm is that it is a crime that consumers have a hard time protecting themselves against, said Dick Eppstein of the Better Business Bureau.
Although often warned to shred preapproved credit-card applications, consumers don't have many options when they never receive the mail in the first place, he said.
"There's kind of an oblique way - check your credit report," he said. "There's no way to catch it any other way."
Mr. Eppstein also suggested opting out of receiving preapproved credit card statements by signing up at www.optoutprescreen.com.
"That came from the [Federal Trade Commission] in 2005 and it will greatly reduce the number of these mailings," he said. "We always suggest to consumers also that they sign up for the do-not-call lists for telemarketers."
Billock-Strahm is incarcerated at Crosswaeh Community Based Correctional Facility in Tiffin after being sentenced in February to six months in the facility on a charge of possession of crack cocaine.
No court dates have been set for the new federal charges filed against her.
According to the office of inspector general for the U.S. Postal Service, Billock-Strahm was hired by the post office in 1990. She was suspended without pay in August after criminal allegations surfaced.
Public records indicate that the mother of two adult children was paid $51,490 annually.
According to the indictment, Billock-Strahm opened four credit card accounts in March, May, and June, 2008. She then allegedly used the cards and the convenience checks to make five transactions ranging from $911 to $4,500.
The charge of aggravated identity theft carries a mandatory prison term of two years, consecutive to any other charges. A charge of false credit-card applications is punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine; identity theft carries a maximum penalty of up to 15 years in prison and a $25,000 fine; and theft of mail is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
Scott Balfour, an assistant special agent in charge with the agency, said that thefts by employees are usually discovered when consumers recognize that they are missing mail and call in complaints. The complaints become investigations if local postal authorities recognize a pattern, he said.
Despite problems, Mr. Balfour said that cases such as the recent criminal charges are "very rare within the postal service."
To put it in perspective, he added, the U.S. Postal Service delivers about 700 million pieces of mail to about 130 million addresses every day during the six-day work week.
"The vast majority of the nearly 700,000 postal workers that deliver the mail do their job professionally everyday," he said. "Unfortunately, there are a small number of people who betray that public trust. It's our job to investigate those people who steal the mail and then pursue criminal charges."
Carey Mayor John Rymer said that in a small town, it's difficult not to be disappointed and feel betrayed by a longtime member of the community. A town of about 3,900 people, Carey is in Wyandot County and is about 65 miles south of Toledo.
Mr. Rymer said that the victims of the identity thefts recognized irregularities in their mail, including receiving notifications of credit cards that they didn't have. But being a tight-knit Christian town, the residents of Carey likely will forgive their former letter-carrier if the allegations are proved to be true, he said.
"When it happens that close to home, you think, 'Why did it happen?'•" he said.
"It's not a large number of victims, but even one is too many."
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