LOS ANGELES — "Wanted" posters long graced the walls of America's post offices. If you spotted one of those faces, you were instructed to call the police or the FBI.
But crime could be as close as that envelope passing through the post office's own sorting machines - even if the criminal is thousands of miles away.
Who do you call then? The US Postal Inspection Service.
As crime becomes more sophisticated, often crossing paths with the mail system, the oldest federal law-enforcement agency in the country is emerging from relative obscurity.
The Postal Inspection Service has jurisdiction in sometimes dramatic cases - like a suspect's recent attempt to mail cyanide under the guise of a health supplement.
With the power to arrest and their own crime lab, postal inspectors take on anyone or anything that threatens or makes illegal use of the mail - from drug traffickers to neighborhood thugs who assault mail carriers. About 2,000 postal inspectors investigate crimes including fraud, child pornography, and increasing incidents of identity theft. But their duties are often more mundane.
"We haven't sought out ... a lot of publicity about our work," says 15-year-veteran postal inspector Randy De Gasparin of the service's Southern California Division. "We don't get mentioned in the press. 'FBI' doesn't take up a lot of space ... I think some [media] people don't know the distinction."
A plug on the service's Web site for a coming made-for-cable movie whose protagonists are postal inspectors also suggests more attention will be welcome.
In addition to the inspectors, about 1,400 uniformed postal police and 900 support staff help protect postal employees, safeguard postal revenues, and audit the Postal Service. When a post office is threatened or damaged, it's the service's job to secure the premises.
Historically responsible for preserving the integrity of the mail, the Postal Inspection Service dates back to 1737, when the newly appointed postmaster, Benjamin Franklin, was tasked with "regulating the several post offices and bringing the postmasters to account."
Today, the service regularly contends with mutating forms of mail fraud, including deceptive credit-card offers, charity fraud, pyramid schemes, repair swindles, and identity theft, often through unlawful use of credit-card accounts.
Sweepstakes fraud was the subject of a recent congressional hearing that included testimony from chief postal inspector Ken Hunter.
ONE scheme making the rounds is a mailing known as "the Nigerian oil letter." The sender claims to be a Nigerian prince and chairman of a petroleum company. He promises the recipients 30 percent of $28.6 million dollars if they provide electronic access to their bank accounts.
Antifraud efforts have saved a lot of money. "Since 1992, we've seen the losses due to credit-card fraud drop somewhere around 68 percent, [although] the overall dollar value of credit-card transactions has gone up substantially," says John Brugger, a postal inspector at the headquarters in Washington.
Postal inspectors frequently share jurisdiction with other agencies.In Los Angeles, for instance, the Boiler Room and Telemarketing Task Force, the first of its kind in the nation, comprises 15 local, state, and federal agencies. With the assistance of senior-citizen volunteers, the task force is warning thousands of people whose names and phone numbers have been found on tip lists seized in fraud investigations.