A Brooklyn, New York, man was arrested for allegedly stealing over $12,000 in coronavirus stimulus checks from mailboxes Tuesday morning. New York Police Department officers spotted the suspect, 31-year-old Feng Chen, carrying stimulus checks, multiple credit cards and other mail with different names. Police arrested him after seeing him looking inside a medical collection bin at a closed office in Sunset Park.
Chen walked into a gated area of a second residential building, carrying the mail, police said, reports WABC. Chen spotted police officers and dropped the mail. The officers left their vehicle and saw a bulge in Chen's jacket pocket. After searching him, police found Chen already had a bench warrant out for his arrest in a different case involving identity theft.
"For many families, these stimulus checks are a lifeline in these difficult times and anyone who tries to cut that lifeline will face the full weight of the law," Richard Donoghue, an attorney in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement, reports NBC News. "This Office will vigorously prosecute all those who seek to take advantage of the public health crisis." Federal prosecutors charged Chen with mail theft, which comes with a prison sentence of up to five years, if convicted. He made a court appearance on Wednesday via video conferencing.
The Postal Inspection Service has warned that the distribution of coronavirus stimulus checks via mail could lead to an increase in mail theft. The service issued a bulletin, asking law enforcement to keep a close eye on the situation. "Bad actors, criminals, they look for opportunity and this is an opportunity like we've never seen before," Donna Harris of the United State Postal Inspection Service, told WABC. "What we say is, when you get your mail, don't leave it in the mailbox."
Last week, the IRS said it has distributed more than $157.9 billion in about 88.1 million stimulus checks to American taxpayers so far. Officials have warned Americans to be vigilant due to scammers, who have stolen identities to keep the checks for themselves. The Federal Trade Commission reported receiving four times as many complaints about identity theft during the first weeks of April than the previous three months combined, notes The New York Times. Some criminals have also created fake websites to lure Americans and have taken advantage of past data breaches.
"I’ve been in this space for over 30 years and I have not seen anything like this in my entire career," Eva Velasquez, whose non-profit site Identity Theft Resource Center, saw traffic balloon 850 percent higher in March compared to March 2019, told the Times. "The scope, the scale, the speed and the efficiency of the scams is breathtaking."