JOSEPH HIGHTOWER says U.S. postal investigators agree he got ripped off last year when he bought a $600 money order to pay his rent.
But no one in the Postal Service can tell Hightower when he'll be refunded the cash he paid to a postal worker at the 30th near Chestnut Street branch on Nov. 23.
"That's a lot of money," says Hightower, an occupational therapist who works with kids. The money order was apparently counterfeit. It bounced. "That made me short for Christmas. I've been trying to catch up."
When Hightower told me his story, I presumed he'd bought his money order from postal worker Felicia Townsend, who was charged last week with stealing $28,642.31 customers paid for money orders.
But a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service told me Hightower was not among the 33 customers to whom Townsend sold money orders. Luckily, those buyers were able to have their orders cashed. The crime occurred when Townsend allegedly pocketed their payments then destroyed documentation that would've alerted the Postal Service that the orders had been sold.
So it appears Hightower is actually the victim of a new money-order scam, courtesy of a USPS employee.
Apparently, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night keeps some postal workers from padding their pockets.
When Hightower learned his money order had bounced, he was stunned. He's been using Postal Service money orders for years because "everyone accepts them. You know they're good."
He alerted three levels of managers and two postal inspectors to his problem. All assured him his complaint was legit.
In fact, he says, he was told at least 100 customers, whose losses totaled more than $100,000, had lodged similar complaints.
A spokesman for the Postal Inspection Service wouldn't confirm or deny that an investigation was ongoing. But Hightower let me listen to a voicemail left by a representative from the USPS national money-order department. The rep confirmed he has been working with postal investigators on Hightower's case.
Less so is the fact that no one has been able to help Hightower recover the $600 he's been missing since he bought that money order 11 months ago.
"They had me fill out a form called a P.S. 6041"- used to process refunds - "but the accounting department said they never got it," says Hightower.
He completed a new form and mailed it off, but that one never arrived either. This time, he says, he was told the address to which he mailed it "hasn't been used for years."
Even though - sigh - it's printed on the form itself.
"I understand they have to be thorough," says Hightower. "But I really need that $600."
Coincidentally, my conversation with him occurred the day after postal workers staged a protest rally outside of Staples at Chestnut Street near 15th. The workers are peeved the USPS has set up more than 80 "mini post offices" in Staples stores, manned by low-wage Staples workers.
The USPS has promoted the arrangement as a way to offer customers access to common mail services, especially during evening and weekend hours.
But Mark Diamondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, tells me the arrangement actually degrades the USPS promise that citizens' mail will be secure and their privacy assured.
To boot, the Staples workers are not trained to know which items are appropriate for shipping. Nor have they sworn an oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States."
"Our workers are highly trained and paid a living wage," says Diamondstein. "The deal with Staples is a push toward privatization."
I think it is, too.
Still, I ask Diamondstein - after talking with ripped-off customers like Hightower; and reading about alleged postal-worker thief Townsend; and knowing my own experience waiting in line forever while a sluggish postal clerk takes her sweet time helping those of us captive to her disinterest - could Staples do a worse job?
He reminds me the USPS is a $67.3 billion operation, employing more than 500,000 employees who process 158.4 billion pieces of mail a year.
"Obviously, if a problem comes up with an employee, it has to be handled," he says.
Well, amen to that.
I just wish someone - anyone - knew how to refund a customer's money when the inspectors themselves agree the customer has been hosed.
On Twitter: @RonniePhilly