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Fishing or Phishing?

As usual public reaction to the change, like any other change, is mixed. Aristotle had once said “Poverty is the parent of crime”.


Those who have visited the USA or lived there will remember the shape and size of the street-side letter boxes. While walking down the street with a British professor during one of my visits to the US, I remember how desperately he was looking for a letter box (Americans call it mail box). When I pointed to a blue-coloured box located on the pavement (the British call it a footpath) as the mailbox, he was taken aback and commented “Oh, my God! It looks like a trash bin. I would not have been able to locate the letter box if you were not with me.’ Truly, it looks like a trash bin.

It has a huge opening with a big lid, which can be used as a tray when it is opened. Americans use the tray to place letters, British use it to place waste. Letter boxes in India and Britain are very similar; a slim, red iron cylindrical structure, with its top looking like a human head, and a slit in the front to drop letters. This is not surprising as we have inherited all these from the British during the colonial rule in India for more than two hundred years. From my several short visits in the last two years, I realized that the scale of everything in America is huge compared to England.

The portion of food served in restaurants is huge; the average size of a house, including probably the owner of the house, on an average, is bigger; the average size of the supermarket, including the available portion of the produce is bigger. It is therefore quite logical that the packets being mailed by Americans are fatter and the mailboxes are made to accommodate them. As reported in one of the issues of the New Yorker, the US is replacing its mailboxes with ones having a smaller opening.

You will be mistaken if you think that this is due to a sudden romance developed with Britain. It is entirely for a different reason – to protect theft and loss of packets. The US Postal Service is under heavy pressure financially. Donald Trump once exasperated with the booming business of on-line stores like Amazon or Flipkart tweeted “I am right about Amazon costing the United States Post Office massive amounts of money for being their Delivery Boy!”. It is true that on-line stores have already sucked in the traditional stores.

I witnessed this myself during my visit to the US in the pre-pandemic era. Many stores, including chain stores, were going out of business due to the increasing trend of on-line shoppers. Fortunately for India, the country has not yet gone completely digital; not all Indians have internet access, and a large percentage of the population is still digitally challenged. I fear that the day is not very far off when small local stores will disappear.

Many of the senior citizens find it difficult to handle on-line purchases and are often duped. Whether we realize it or not, with an increasing number of senior citizens living alone in cities in India, dukans or kirana stores provide a useful service to the society. The main reason for the replacement of older letter boxes is that the US Postal Service is facing a new problem called ‘Mailbox fishing’ which, in a sense, is the traditional way of modern ‘phishing’.

In 2015, US Postal Services staff noticed that street side mailboxes were smeared with a kind of gluey substance. The design of the US mailboxes helped the perpetrators fish out envelopes containing documents like cheques and packets carrying valuables. The method was simple: insert any heavy object like an empty glass bottle or a bottle of juice coated with glue tied to a long rope into the mailbox, move it around inside the box for a while and then pull it out. If one is lucky, he/she may be rewarded with an envelope or a small packet sticking to the inserted object. It could be an envelope containing a cheque, or a packet containing an expensive perfume, a watch, or such other attractive products.

Cashing a cheque from an envelope, of course, requires the skill of phishing by using software to override the entire banking process in work. But any other ready-to-use product can be a prized possession. To prevent ‘mailbox fishing’, the US Postal Service is now replacing the old boxes with newer ones. They look identical to the old ones except that the huge opening on the top is replaced by a narrow three-eighth inch slit in front.

As usual public reaction to the change, like any other change, is mixed. Aristotle had once said “Poverty is the parent of crime”. Multiple scholarly disciplines like economics, political science, anthropology etc. have indicated that poverty and crime go hand in hand. Crimes originate from despair and a feeling of insecurity. There are two major kinds of poverty. One is absolute poverty which arises out of non-availability of minimum resources for survival. The other is relative poverty that has its origin in income inequality. People suffering from poverty arising out of non-availability of minimum resources for survival are susceptible to crimes such as robbery, petty theft etc.while persons suffering from deprivation out of income inequality are linked with more aggressive and violent crimes such as murder, homicide and assault.

Is it not surprising that a country with a low poverty index is behaving like a country with high poverty like India? And the situation is so grave that the postal service of the USA is forced to replace the mailboxes. The point that comes out loud and clear is that crime is universal, and perpetrators have no nationality. Given a chance people will behave similarly anywhere. What is important is to cultivate the right values in people and the rest will follow suit – be it in the East or the West.

A version of this story appears in the print edition of the September 8, 2022, issue.

The writer is a man of letters and was editor in-chief of the journal Science and Culture.