ROME (AP) - Police posing as postal workers and aided by hidden cameras uncovered the systematic theft of money, credit cards, checks and other valuables from mail at Italy's largest mail sorting station, postal police said Thursday.
Seventeen employees at the sorting center in the town of Peschiera Borromeo, on the outskirts of Milan, were arrested on charges of embezzlement, said Giovanni Pepe, director of Postal Police in Italy's financial capital.
Police estimate hundreds of thousands of euros (dollars) was stolen over several years.
Authorities notified 23 other employees that they were being investigated, Pepe said. All of the suspects are Italian, he said.
Hidden cameras, including one in a toilet, showed employees would open mail, steal the contents if they liked them and rip the envelopes into shreds, Pepe said, speaking by phone from Milan.
Sometimes, after inspecting envelopes and packages inside toilet stalls, the workers would flush the shredded correspondence down the toilet and stuff the valuables into their pockets, the police official said.
Authorities released video from the hidden cameras showing employees counting wads of cash they had stolen from envelopes they had just opened in the toilet stalls.
The center, employing 1,200 people, is Italy's largest mail sorting station and handles large amounts of mail from abroad.
Much of the pilfered mail came from abroad, Pepe said.
The stealing, Pepe said, "went on for several long years, surely" and the probe began after some managers at the center tipped police of their suspicions.
Six undercover police officers infiltrated the center disguised as mail sorters, Pepe said.
Charges included embezzlement and stealing from the mail, he said. The arrests were made over the last few days.
The Italian postal service has often been accused of being slow and inefficient, but many of the Peschiera Borromeo center's workers appeared to be highly organized.
Pepe said an employee would go into a toilet with a potentially lucrative package "and in two minutes it was opened and the envelope torn into tiny pieces."
Often cash was stolen. "Sometimes they stole 400, 500 sterling" (US$730-910, euro600-750) from envelopes, Pepe said.
Piles of checks, credit cards, euro bills and cell phones - all allegedly among the stolen loot that was recovered - was spread out on a table at a news conference at postal police headquarters in Milan.
"Everyone stole for their own sake," postal police official, Maurizio Masciopinto, told SKY TG24. "It's clear they knew the mechanism."
The Italian news agency ANSA said much of the money that was stolen was being mailed to charities, and that stolen checks were cashed after accounts were opened in the payee's name using false documents.
SKY said some postal employees with modest salaries were believed to have bought themselves well-appointed villas with some of the stolen money.