First Published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Contact Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Managing Editor Hank Nuwer at

A couple weeks ago I put back a neighbor’s mailbox that I stole.

Of course, I didn’t really steal the mailbox. How and what happened is my most recent cheechako misadventure tale.

Months ago, while finishing my editing and college teaching duties in the Lower 48, I rented a lovely cabin in the high country of Fairbanks that was long distance from an absentee owner in Florida.

Having a mailbox never mattered because I get my mail at a Fairbanks post office box. So, apparently, does the neighbor. The few times I checked “my” mailbox on the left, I found no mail. I never touched the mailbox on the right.

After a snowplow knocked down “my” mailbox on the left, I plucked it from the snowbank and put it in my car. About a week later, the landlord flew to Alaska to visit his rental.

Surprise for him and a shock for me! The landlord found junk mail and my GCI bill in the correct mailbox to the right of the driveway.

Yep, the landlord figured out I had swiped the neighbor’s mailbox. I ran down the hill to put the mailbox back on its damaged perch. (When I visit the neighbor, I’ll explain what must have seemed a mystery mailbox theft to him).

I sure am lucky there was zero mail in the mailbox I stole.

Can you imagine being carted off in cuffs by an Alaska trooper for taking junk U.S. mail? Shivers run down my spine. Sitting for a mug shot never was tops on my bucket list.

We hardened criminals are not known for our brainpower! As you’ll now learn that’s true.

After that dumb stunt, I experienced yet another cheechako episode. However, you’ll forgive my wife and me if we do not find the second true crime story funny.

With the short-term leased cabin about to be reclaimed by the owner for the summer, my wife Gosia and I scrambled to find a replacement cabin. (We’ve decided to keep our other residences outside Alaska, and, house-poor, we looked for a bargain rental until we can buy a cabin in Fairbanks).

“Can I rent a dry cabin? I asked Gosia.

“Sure, if you don’t mind living in it alone,” she said.

“Maybe just for a few months?”

“You’re dead.”

I took that for a no.

Over and over, I made one phone call too late to get a rental and starting to feel desperation. Gosia was finishing tax season as an accountant in Ohio, and I had little time away from work to search for lodging.

Then on Craigslist, I found the “perfect” tiny cabin for $1098 a month on Sharon Road in North Pole. Cabins this nice usually cost $2,000 per month and so I called the number and left a message. The “landlord” called back to say that he was “living out of town” and directed me to inspect “his” cabin through the windows.

This was similar to how we rented our wonderful short-term cabin sight unseen from an absentee owner back in 2022 when I was a managing editor working in the Lower 48.

To check out the prospective new cabin, Gosia flew to Alaska for a three-day visit. We went on a dogsled run and then drove to Sharon Road and peeked in all the windows. It was nice and stole our hearts. “Maybe we can buy it after a year,” I said to Gosia.

My wife and I experienced red flags but shrugged them off. Why? Maybe because we feared being suddenly homeless in Alaska. Maybe because the Sharon Road cabin was lovely. Maybe we are too trusting. Maybe we’re a pair of saps.

He was smooth as almond butter. “I have to be away for three years for my new job,” he said to me on the phone. “I want to rent to someone who’ll take care of the house like his own.”

The “owner” proceeded to interview me and emailed me a four-page lease stamped by a real notary–or counterfeited. The notary noted she viewed his Texas driver license to confirm his identity.

Last week we put $2196.00 into the landlord’s “wife’s” Regions Bank checking account for first month’s rent and deposit. The first time he gave us an incorrect routing number, and after days passed, Regions deposited the money back in our checking account.

Oh, if only then we had smelled a stone-hearted criminal in our adopted Golden Heart City. Stinkwad gave us the right routing number and Gosia paid it. We congratulated ourselves on finding a place to live, and I shared the good news with family and friends.

The “landlord” then ignored all increasingly frantic phone calls, texts and emails as April days grew shorter.

Finally, I texted a demand for the keys. Minutes later, I called to follow up and learned the “landlord” had disconnected his throwaway mobile phone.

Gosia & Hank Nuwer

Gosia and I woke up at last. We checked with the owner of the Sharon Road house. The darling empty cabin was for sale, not for rent.

A Regions bank employee was sympathetic on the phone but assured us she could not help. She did promise to close the checking account of the thief.

Now we did the homework we should have done in the first place. The stinkwad had appropriated the identity of a North Pole healthcare practitioner named Brian.

On Friday, “Brian” had the gall to email me asking me for more personal information. He gave a new phone number. I blocked him, and I took out identity theft insurance.

Not only are my wife and I out the money, we’re embarrassed. “We both feel guilty,” my wife Gosia said. “I’ll bet that’s why other people who fall for scams never report the crimes. They feel like somehow they were the ones who did something wrong.”

I said I wondered if the scammer one day would feel guilty.

“Only when he finally gets caught, and I believe one day he will get caught,” Gosia said.

The one silver lining is that the Fairbanks police dispatcher and investigating Alaska trooper have been not only professional but nice. Their comfort meant a lot to my wife and me at a time when our knees wouldn’t stop shaking. The trooper advised us to file an FBI scam report and we did.

I don’t want to end this Golden Heart Tale on a downer story. So let me tell you an upbeat event that just happened to my friend and former editor Colleen Steffen back in Indiana.

She was relaxing in her hammock when a poor hawk baby flew into the side of her garage. He was stunned and his little white feathers trembled, reminding Colleen the time her daughter took a bad spill off a bicycle.

“The hawk mom showed up and was less sympathetic than I was then,” Colleen recalled. “She sat in a tree overhead literally screaming at him while he looked around pretending not to hear her.”

Colleen, having kids who could also go deaf when she spoke, could relate to Mama Hawk.

A full 28 minutes later, the hurt hawk recovered. “The kid hopped and hopped and flew away in a big puff of white feathers that floated down into the grass,” Colleen said.

Me, I’m still stunned like that little hawk, but one day I will get over the shock of being taken and be wiser next time. On my own, I”m doing some detective work on the notary public whose stamp was on the bogus lease.

We have no time for self pity. We gotta find a new cabin to rent and soon.