How thoughtful can mailmen get! The notion struck Katherine Spadacini as she brushed on some lipstick and hurried out the door of her Germantown home Tuesday morning, headed for what she believed was a special appointment to pick up a Christmas package at the main post office in Rockville.

The man who called had said he was from the post office, and he had a package for her that had been damaged in transit but was insured. And while they were incredibly busy with the Christmas mails and all, he said he could let her inspect it if she could come right away to Rockville, 25 minutes by car.

"I thought it was great because he gave me an hour to get there," Spadacini recalled. "I thought it was so nice they would call. He even gave me directions. I was expecting a package from my sister in California. She was sending me Nicaraguan coins for a Christmas present."

But when the 61-year-old woman, a recent heart attack victim who has filled many days adding to her coin collection, arrived at the post office on North Washington Street across from the county courthouse, she found there was no package, and the man at the window said, "Don't you know this is a racket?"

"I just looked at the guy, and I started to shiver," Spadacini said. "It went through my body that something had happened. The only thing in my head was what was in my house. When I went back to the house I cried and cried. My husband said, 'You can't cry like that; you've had a heart attack.'"

At Spadacini's brick home in the 17400 block of Siever Court in Germantown, $3,000 in coins and jewelry, including a St. Anthony medal from Italy that she says helped her survive in the hospital, were gone. The utility room window was broken and police dogs were sniffing in the ransacked master bedroom for clues to what Montgomery County authorities say is another in a series of burglaries based on the "Post Office Ruse."

"It's a new little twist to the game," said county police official Nancy Moses. "It's a neat Christmas trick. It saves burglars a lot of gas. They let their fingers do the walking."

On Dec. 3 a farmhouse on McCrosin Lane in Potomac's horse country was relieved of $10,000 in silver and jewelry after the homeowner, a 35-year-old psychotherapist, was lured out of her house by a phone call from a phony mailman telling her to come pick up a package at Rockville. In October another homeowner in Damascus reported a similar call to police but foiled the burglar's plans when he did not leave the house.

"It's Christmas and the burglars are preying on the fact that it's Christmas," said Richard Culver, manager of mail processing at Rockville's main post office and a postal worker for two decades. "We do not call customers. We deliver damaged packages. The only time we would make an appointment is if we could not deliver a shipment of bees or live chickens. That's the only time we would call and that would be to preserve the contents. t

Police have warned Montgomery homeowners to be wary of callers claiming to be from the post office, but do not yet have any suspects in the burglaries.

In both instances in which homeowners were hoodwinked, the caller addressed the homeowner by name, and set the time they might examine the packages waiting for them, stressing the hectic holiday schedule.

During the first week in December, the victim in Potomac said a caller told her a damaged package was waiting for her at the Rockville post office. "I remember walking out of the house thinking this doesn't all fit together," she recalled. "Why am I going to Rockville when my post office is in Twinbrook? Hmmmm. Why is this? It's Christmas, excess mail, blah blah blah. I got to the post office and they didn't know what I was talking about."

Returning home, she discovered the silver missing from where she had hidden it in the bathroom, and all the jewelry cleaned off her dresser. "I felt dumb. Duped is the word," she said. "I have terrific hindsight but it cost me $10,000."

Other Montgomery postmasters were notified by the Rockville branch, and when Katherine Spadacini appeared two weeks later, saying someone had just called her and told her to come pick up a package, Richard Culver knew she had been tricked. Culver took Spadacini back to her office, gave her coffee and said he was going to call the police.

"She's an old woman and she said something about having had a heart attack," Culver said. "That scared me to death. When she plopped down on the chair I thought, 'Oh my Lord, she's gonna have one here on the workroom floor."

Spadacini remembers that the man who called had a "charming voice. Any woman he talks to will fall for him," she said. But she allowed it was her own excitement as a numismatist -- coins from Nicaragua -- that prompted her to purse what proved to be a piece of bitter folly.

"I was expecting a package from California. That's what got me," Spadacini said. "I started collecting coins because I had time on my hands. It gave me more of a thrill than anything else in the world. But I don't want to see coins anymore. I don't want any more coins."