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How secure is the personal information given to post offices by those seeking U.S. passports? Not very, according to an investigation by the U.S. Postal Service conducted after a snafu caused a San Diego woman and her daughter to raise questions about possible identity theft.

“At the three Postal Service passport acceptance facilities we visited, acceptance agents did not always secure completed passport applications when they were away from the retail window,” says a May 15 report of the investigation, conducted at the behest of San Diego congressman Duncan Hunter by the Postal Service's Office of Inspector General.

"We observed supporting documentation passport customers left behind that was not stored in locked cabinets or drawers.

"This documentation contained [personally identifiable information] such as valid passports, birth certificates, and driver’s licenses.

"We found transmittal forms with customer names, birth dates, and telephone numbers in envelopes on desktops, in storage rooms, or in cabinets and drawers on the workroom floor, where they were accessible to unauthorized personnel."

The report includes photographs of stacks of personal identity documents strewn about the post offices visited by auditors.

There were other problems as well.

"We observed an acceptance agent processing passport applications in the middle window of the main retail area, which was highly visible and accessible to customers waiting in line.

"During interactions with passport customers, the acceptance agent asked them to verbally confirm portions of the passport application, which revealed [personal information] in the presence of other customers."

Investigators point to lax training of postal clerks assigned to handle passport matters.

"65 percent of acceptance agents at the three passport acceptance facilities we visited did not have documentation to show they completed the required passport acceptance training.

"Of the 17 acceptance agents’ training records we requested for review, management was unable to provide training records showing completion of either the initial passport application acceptance training or the annual passport application acceptance refresher course for 11 agents."

The identity information of its customers is not the only thing being jeopardized, the report adds.

"This could have a negative impact on the Postal Service’s brand and result in revenue loss if customers elect not to use the Postal Service for passport services.

"We identified about $64 million in annual revenue at risk associated with passport acceptance facilities potentially being suspended or closed for noncompliance with [U.S. State Department] procedures."

The road to the investigation began in November 2012, according to the report, when two women submitted passport applications at a San Diego post office.

"The mother received her passport in about 10 days; however, unit personnel found the daughter’s application unsecured at the Post Office 23 days after it was accepted and personnel at a Tucson, AZ Post Office subsequently misfiled the application for 10 days before redelivering it to the regional passport office.

"The Postal Service reimbursed the family for costs associated with the delay in service," the report says, adding that investigators "found no evidence that the Postal Service compromised the [personally identifiable information] in question."

In a May 5 response, Postal Service officials argued that some of the findings made by investigators were "unsubstantiated," and asserted "employees who don't take the annual training are decertified and therefore not allowed to accept passports."

As for other allegations in the report, the response says, "This audit is limited to a sample of three Post Offices with passport acceptance services and may not be representative of all facilities.

"The [Office of Inspector General] should refrain from including subjective findings that could mislead the public into thinking Personally Identifiable Information has been compromised."

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Comments

monaghan May 30, 2014 @ 2:58 p.m.

Don't get me going. The "brand" of the United States Postal Service is daily being trashed by it own employees in myriad ways.

On a recent weekday afternoon there were never fewer than a dozen patrons standing in line at my PO for more than 35 minutes and ONE postal clerk to deal with all their needs -- including boxing and wrapping packages for sending. I personally needed a single airmail stamp for a letter to Japan.

After 25 minutes of waiting (I always bring a newspaper to read when in line at the PO,) I broke ranks to ask the solitary clerk if she couldn't rustle up some help from the shadowy figures visibly moving in the back room. Oh no, said she, someone called in sick today, that's why we're short-handed; who's left is just the Postmaster.

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dwbat May 30, 2014 @ 7:35 p.m.

I didn't know USPS employees did "boxing and wrapping packages"; is this something new?

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oskidoll May 31, 2014 @ 10:47 a.m.

I've often wondered why the manager, or 'postmaster' couldn't come to the front counter during those very busy times when impacted with a long line of customers. A good manager will do everything possible to help the customer, even if it means working with the 'peons' at the front counter.

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wv2b May 31, 2014 @ 9:57 a.m.

Yes, people forget that paying postage does not entitle them to have us pack, tape and label their packages. The postage payment covers the cost to transport and deliver the Mail. It should be brought to the counter completely addressed and labeled, and securely sealed so it can just be processed. But, especially in smaller offices people just bring an item in, lay it on the counter, and expect us to do everything. At one time we developed a pack and ship program to charge for these services, and were sued by UPS to stop it as they said it was unfair competition. These people rob others of time available to serve them. Then there is grandma digging in the bottom of her purse for pennies, taking 10 minutes to write out a check, etc. Don't blame the clerk who is helping you for the long line. Don't you think that clerk would love to have more help? It is not their call- it is management's call, and they often are under intense pressure to limit how many clerk hours they are using. It is not that easy to determine staffing. Often I have up to an hour with not a single customer, then school lets out and 30 people come in at once all rolling there eyes at me because they think I am too slow and there should be more help. Once the rush is processed it goes back to being dead again. The same just before closing. So, if you are retired, and don't want to wait in line, don't wait until 5 minutes before closing, then come in and roll your eyes because you have to wait in line.

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monaghan May 31, 2014 @ 12:10 p.m.

Thank you, wv2b, for proving my point about the general level of non-service and stonewall attitude at the USPS. I did have a good experience once, a year ago, at the beautiful art deco South Beach Post Office in Miami, with a helpful and friendly Cuban postal clerk.

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Visduh May 31, 2014 @ 9:43 p.m.

USPS, VA, California DMV. What do they have in common? They are government agencies that consistently fail to deliver the services they are charged with delivering. Why in the world do US citizens put up with the lines, the rotten-attitude employees, and the mistakes or omissions of those (and many other such) operations? We pay plenty in taxes, enough to make these operations functional. Oh, I know that the USPS is "independent" and "self supporting" on paper, but it is still a political operation, and has a US government guaranteed monopoly.

The "scandal du jour" is VA. In a few months it will be forgotten, but the miserable system will change little or not at all. VA has been a scandal for decades, one that the public was willing to accept. For some reason I cannot fathom, suddenly the public now cares about the care veterans receive?

This matter with postal employees handling passport applications and the supporting documents is just another chapter in the story. Sure, it is a scandal, and needs attention now. But is ANYONE really surprised that USPS employees are dropping the ball, failing to secure confidential data, and losing applications? Anyone?? Nah, we know better, but what ya' gonna do about it?

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