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The End of Mail Privacy

Mises Daily: Thursday, July 08, 1999 by

From USA Today July 8 1999

The U.S. Postal Service is cracking down on private mailbox owners with onerous new reporting and address requirements. Unfortunately, Americans' privacy will be a collateral casualty of this abuse of power.

About 2 million American businesses and individuals rely on private mailboxes provided by firms such as Pak Mail and Mail Boxes Etc. This is an industry spawned by government incompetence and contempt for customers. Private mailbox services arose during the 1970s, when some people were told they would have to wait years for a post-office mailbox.

Private mailbox services, with longer hours and far more services than the Postal Service, are lifesavers for small business owners. And the Postal Service makes windfall profits from them because delivering a carton of mail to a private post office is far cheaper than divvying it out to dozens of homes and businesses.

But the success of its private competitors embarrasses the Postal Service, which now is demanding that private mailbox customers put the equivalent of a "Scarlet A" on their addresses.

The Postal Service soon will cease delivering mail to any private mailbox not identified as a "PMB" in the address. Thus, even though the Postal Service knows an address is correct, it will spitefully return the letter to the sender as "undeliverable."

Many private box owners now simply use the street address of the private mail office; some add a suite number. The mandatory PMB designation is an attempt to make an entire industry appear a bit shabby and shady.

Name, rank and mailbox

The Postal Service is also requiring those who want a private mailbox to show two types of identification, including a photo, and give their home address and phone. The Postal Service initially said it would provide this personal information to anyone who asked. After a backlash from privacy advocates, it promised two weeks ago to tighten its disclosure policy, but has not yet revised its proposed regulations.

Juley Fulcher of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says the proposed regulations "could be particularly dangerous for battered women who are trying to conceal their location from someone who is stalking them." Her coalition worries that the Postal Service won't safeguard the information it compels private mailbox users to surrender.

And what's the next step? If the Postal Service can require two forms of identification from anyone receiving mail in a private mailbox, then why can't a mail deliverer demand to see two pieces of identification from you before he gives up your home mail?

Anecdotal 'proof'

The Postal Service justifies the new burden by warning of the dangers of mail fraud. However, the Postal Service can provide no information as to the number of fraud convictions related to private post office boxes compared to its own mailboxes. Instead, a few anecdotes are deemed sufficient to sanction new restrictions on millions of citizens.

Local franchise owners of private mailbox offices loudly denounce the new rules. The Small Business Survival Committee, a Washington lobby, warns that the rules will cost businesses hundreds of millions of dollars in transition costs for things such as customer notices and new stationery.

When the Postal Service initially proposed the new requirements late last year, public comments ran 800 to 1 against the controls. The Postal Service moved ahead anyway. But Congress may yank on its reins: Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has proposed a resolution that would wipe away the new requirements.

That would be a good step, but the only real solution is to demilitarize the Postal Service's legal arsenal and end its power over other American businesses and American citizens.


James Bovard is the author of Freedom in Chains: The Rise of the State and the Demise of the Citizen.

c) copyright 1999 USA Today

See also Postal Watch, a site devoted entirely to exposing goings on with the government mails.