Thousands of Postal Service letter trays, like the ones above, go missing every year. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Starting Saturday, the cash-strapped delivery service said it is giving customers two weeks to return any stolen equipment, no questions asked.

USPS spent nearly $50 million last year replacing equipment that was stolen or inadvertently taken and never returned by customers, officials said Wednesday.

“This is a serious issue,” said David Williams, vice president of USPS network operations. “We are in a financial crisis and simply cannot afford this type of unnecessary expense. The equipment is federal property, and we want it back.”

The Postal Service is expected next week to announce losses of at least $10 billion for fiscal 2011, and it is aggressively cutting back with plans to close thousands of post offices and hundreds of mail processing facilities, and to trim worker payrolls through attrition and maybe layoffs.

It is a federal crime to steal postal equipment and can lead to up to three years in prison or up to $250,000 in fines.

With more than 32,000 post offices and more than 200 mail processing facilities nationwide, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service said USPS uses thousands of pallets (costing $20 each) to move crates of mail, letter trays ($2.75 each) and translucent mail tubs with “United States Postal Service” emblazoned along the side in black letters ($4 each).

Postal inspectors have recovered more than 200,000 pieces of equipment worth more than $4 million since 2008.

According to postal inspectors, one of the worst offenders was a Georgia man who worked for a major mailer and was arrested for stealing and selling almost 10,000 Postal Service pallets to a pallet supply company. The company in turn provided USPS’s equipment to a freight company shipping to South America. The man paid $10,129 in restitution to USPS.

In Florida, a man sold more than 21,000 pallets belonging to the Postal Service. After being confronted, the man said he was aware it was against the law to steal and resell the pallets. He was sentenced in federal court to five months in prison and ordered to pay more than $419,000 in restitution, according to postal inspectors.

The Postal Service said its amnesty program for mail equipment will run from Nov. 12 to Nov. 26. Customers may drop the equipment off at post offices or mail processing facilities, and organizations with large amounts of stolen equipment may arrange for a one-time pick up by e-mailing and including “Equipment Pickup Request” in the subject line. The organization should also include its name, address and where the equipment is located in the message.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Further reading:

Postal Service could lose $10 billion this year

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