LONDON • A spate of thefts targeting the bright-red post boxes that have been a feature of Britain's street corners since the 19th century has forced the postal service to fight back - with an arsenal of high-tech tools.
Royal Mail has unveiled plans to use forensic tagging to identify stolen post boxes and even electronic tracking to keep a close watch on these iconic landmarks of winding lanes and village greens.
The company has warned of "a significant threat" to the boxes - particularly in "isolated rural localities" - and is teaming up with the public body Historic England to protect the 115,500-strong network.
The Letter Box Study Group - an association of enthusiasts that has become the authority on the history of the British roadside letter box - estimates that up to 200 boxes are stolen every year.
Some of the more flagrant cases this year include four valuable Victorian-era post boxes swiped over just one weekend in January in three Norfolk villages in eastern England.
Photos published in a regional newspaper showed one post box in Nunthorpe in north-east England had been crudely ripped away from the brickwork it was mounted on, leaving a sorry pile of rubble.
But Royal Mail has a strategy to tackle the letter box bandits.
"We have an internal security team at Royal Mail looking at equipment, including forensic tags, permanent metal-marking systems and electronic tracking," a spokesman said. "Theft of post boxes is relatively rare, but there are spates involving individuals or gangs."
Mr Robert Cole of the Letter Box Study Group said thieves had three likely motivating factors. "There are people who are after scrap metal, those who are interested in the contents and those who know the boxes' heritage value," he said.
Royal Mail also stopped auctioning off its old boxes in 2003, reducing supply and bumping up prices. A search on an online auction site showed the prices people are willing to pay for more unusual Royal Mail boxes - one pillar box was being offered for £5,775 (S$12,380).
Royal Mail said it hopes to conserve the legacy of objects that "are so highly regarded that they have become part of the national image".