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Like most federal agents, Don Obritsch maintains a low profile. He watches from behind the scenes, waiting for the crime to unfold.

In fact, his agency used to be known as the "silent service" in government circles. But as public awareness has become increasingly important, it's been forced out of the closet.Obritsch is a postal inspector for the U.S. Postal Service in Salt Lake City. On a daily basis, he and two other local agents handle crimes ranging from mail fraud to internal theft.

"It's been in our best interest to stay out of the limelight because many of our investigations are of a sensitive nature involving internal crime," said Obritsch. "We take care of our own house first."

Due in part to the trio of crime busters, Salt Lake City reflects a nationwide trend of decreasing postal crime. In a recent report, Chief Postal Inspector Charles R. Clauson attributed the drop to increased prevention, investigation, enforcement and prosecution.

The move toward prevention - ideally achieved by educating the public - has gradually increased the department's visibility. With that in mind, Obritsch is attacking his latest problem - a destructive example of life imitating art.

"Ever since the movie `Stand by Me' came out, we've seen a rash of mailbox vandalism," said Obritsch. "Not just locally, but everywhere, the most frequent problem inspectors have seen is the destruction of dozens of mailboxes."

A scene in the movie depicts a carload of teenagers cruising country roads in search of mailboxes. When they find a row, out comes a baseball bat and the row is quickly removed.

Another method of vandalism commonly increases at this time of the year. Mailboxes make popular targets for Fourth of July revelers with firecrackers and explosives.

To cut down on vandalism, Obritsch advises postal patrons to keep in touch with their neighbors and watch for suspicious vehicles or people. Parents should teach their sons and daughters the consequences of vandalism.

Firecrackers in a mailbox may seem like innocent playfulness to some, but the Postal Service takes the issue quite seriously, said Obritsch. In accordance with one of the 80 federal statutes enforced by the Inspection Service, a person convicted of destroying letter boxes or mail can serve up to three years in prison and be fined $1,000.

On the other hand, folks who take the time to read the notices on the wall when mailing their letters may find Obritsch's endeavors profitable. Rewards ranging from

$1,000 to $10,000 will be given to any person who can provide information that leads to the arrest and conviction of a postal criminal.

Another common problem locally is mail fraud, an issue Obritsch links to "the trusting local community we have here."

The inspector's office handles from five to 10 inquiries and complaints daily from customers wary of mail giveaways and solicitation. Most involve a "free" prize or trip, which Obritsch addresses with what he calls cliche advice.

"The types of gimmicks we see are only limited by your imagination," Obritsch said. "People should just keep in mind, if it seems too good to be true, it often is."

One last piece of advice from Obritsch concerns theft of mail. He urges patrons who are waiting for a long-overdue important letter to call the inspectors' office and alert them to its non-delivery.

"Mail theft is one of our most frustrating cases where we have the lowest success rate, because people don't think it will do any good to notify us," he said. "It's important to document the loss so we can track it, develop patterns and catch the perpetrators."