| October 2012
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By Heather World
Once it was a pair of running shoes, once it was a box of diapers. It’s been jeans, baby clothes, and occasionally electronics. Packages have been disappearing from Noe Valley doorsteps.
The streets change—Cesar Chavez, 28th Street, 22nd Street, Alvarado—but the modus operandi is largely the same: packages are cut open and looted or sometimes stolen outright.
One man reported being hit twice in three weeks between the end of August and the beginning of September. Both times he found an empty box sliced open and wedged beneath his doormat. Missing were the children’s clothes and vitamins that he had ordered. In mid-September, a woman reported finding a sliced-open box missing toothpaste.
Because the San Francisco Police Department does not categorize such thefts, statistics have been hard to come by, but anecdotal evidence suggests mail crimes are up. The local listservs—the electronic back fence of the modern neighborhood—are abuzz with reports, particularly in the area around Noe and 22nd streets.
One resident managed to post a security-camera video of a man looking around furtively before cutting open a package in the entrance of what appears to be an apartment complex, giving others a grainy look at the suspect.
The video was passed from neighbor to neighbor, and eventually ended up in the inbox of Jeff, who lives on 22nd Street between Sanchez and Noe. (Like others interviewed for this story, he preferred to use his first name only, to avoid possible retribution.)
Jeff watched the video and immediately recognized a familiar face on his street, a man he dubs the Bicycle Bandit. He said package thefts on 22nd Street seem to come in fits and starts, coinciding with the appearance of this man, who cruises the streets on a bike.
Neighbors all know him, Jeff said. One took the man’s picture with a cell phone after she caught him digging through a box on a neighbor’s porch. Jeff himself saw the man rummaging through a package on another neighbor’s porch. His wife and a friend shooed the Bandit off stoops, too.
Yet the man continued riding through the neighborhood, smiling and friendly, said Jeff.
“This guy will talk to you straight-faced, no shame, no second thoughts whatsoever,” he said.
Like his neighbors, Jeff has a small sign by his doorbell asking delivery workers to divert packages to three nearby addresses if no one is home. While his regular delivery driver is accommodating, others are not so helpful, he said.
Some just “drop and dash,” he said.
The trucks themselves may be a tipoff for thieves.
“The UPS guy has said that this guy follows the truck—that it’s not an uncommon phenomenon,” said 22nd Street resident Tina, who recently had a delivery of men’s running shoes stolen.
A spokesman for UPS called such thefts “rare,” but advised customers to have packages sent to their workplace or to a relative or neighbor who is usually home. In addition, the company offers a free service called My Choice, which gives customers a four-hour window for when the package will arrive.
Jeff Fitch, U.S. Postal Inspector and spokesman for the San Francisco division of the Postal Inspection Service, said it has received a number of complaints from Noe Valley residents and is following up on them.
Stealing mail is a federal offense and can lead to up to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000, he said.
He advised anyone whose mail had been stolen to call both his office and the police department.
“It’s like building blocks,” he said. “We gather the evidence and then present it for prosecution.”
He also advised people to insure their packages, delivered or sent.
“It’s pennies on the dollar,” he said.
Mission Station Police Captain Robert Moser encouraged neighbors to report missing packages, even if the suspect was long gone.
“The sooner we know about a crime pattern, the sooner we can react,” he said. “The more information we get, the better we can deploy our officers and be at the right place at the right time.”
Reporting incidents may yield results. Not long after Jeff identified to police the man in the video as the man he’d seen digging through a package, the Bandit was questioned by a postal inspector. He hasn’t been seen since, Jeff said.
You can report stolen mail and other postal crimes online at https://postalinspectors.uspis.gov or by calling a 24-hour hotline at 877-876-2455.
To file a police report with the San Francisco Police Department, you can go to the nearest police station or call the non-emergency line at 415-553-0123 and have an officer come take a report. You can also file online at www.sf-police.org.
Mission Station is at 630 Valencia Street at 17th (415-558-5400). Ingleside District Station is at 1 John Young Lane, near Balboa Park (415-404-4000).