By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Debra DiPaolo
When most folks think of the post office, they envision that intrepid corps of mail carriers toting letter-stuffed leather bags set off by cute baby-blue uniforms. When Adam Parfrey thinks about the United States Postal Service, all he sees is red. "These characters have succeeded in not only invading my privacy," the controversial publisher fumed, "they have also managed to concoct this intentionally ruinous plan that will cost me 12 to 15 grand per year!"
The focus of Parfrey’s anger is a quiet move by the USPS to force 2 million customers of private-mailbox services to fork over proof of identification with actual home addresses and telephone numbers to their commercial mail-receiving agency (CMRA). The CMRA then must dutifully turn this information over to the United States Postal Service. Failure to comply could result in "criminal sanctions," according to a post office statement.
The idea, according to post office officials, is to cut down on mail fraud and other criminal activities at the over 10,000 mailbox stores throughout the nation, a quarter of which are located in California.
CMRAs began operating in the mid-’70s in response to a shortage of official post office boxes; applicants faced waiting lists of as long as three years. The private letter drops soon became popular as operators of small home businesses discovered they could use the CMRAs to provide a prestigious street address instead of a P.O. box.
The rental outlets have the added advantages of operating longer hours and receiving UPS, FedEx and courier deliveries. Plus, CMRAs are faster and friendlier to deal with than the post office.
Adoption of the new rules could weaken the appeal of the private services, pushing CMRA customers back into the post office, operators of the private mail houses contend.
"With the sweep of a bureaucratic pen and absolutely no congressional mandate, the post office took away our greatest market advantage, which is the use of a street address for our customers," said Leanne Jewett, owner of the oldest Southland CMRA, Post-Tel in Santa Monica, which opened in 1976.
Jewett is referring to another new requirement, that commercial-box renters start adding "PMB" above their address in order to identify the location as a "private mailbox." The post office maintains that PMBs are used as fronts for such crimes as trafficking in pornography and drugs and have precipitated a wave of fraudulent businesses. However, the CATO Institute, a conservative think tank which opposes the new rules, maintains that fraud accounts for only "15.9 percent or 1,533 cases of . . . mail-related crime [in 1998] and there are no good figures on how many cases involved private versus P.O. or home boxes."
Since inviting public comments on the new system last year, the mail service has been bombarded with complaints. Only 10 of the 8,107 comments were favorable, and those were submitted by crime fighters like the Secret Service and International Association of Financial Crimes Investigators and industry giants like American Express and Wells Fargo. Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas) recently introduced a bill to erase the new rules, and 32 members of Congress — including Dana Rohrabacher (R–Huntington Beach) and Tom Campbell (R–San Jose) — have signed on in support.
Stung by the reaction, the post office issued a press release on June 25 stating that it "will prohibit release, except for law-enforcement purposes, of address information of individuals . . . pending final approval." The scheme now is to revamp the identification forms that now have PMB holders signing away their privacy rights, according to post office spokesman Norm Scherstrom. "We’re going to put a new proposal in that says, ‘We won’t release it,’" he said, "and in the interim, we’re not going to release it."
Postal Service officials seem almost apologetic in the face of growing public criticism. "This is the best set of instructions we could come up with to combat the problem," Scherstrom responded in an interview. "If there was one thing that we could do to solve all fraud problems, without unduly interfering with the legitimate interests of the American public, whether they be consumers or sellers in the market, I’m sure we would do it. Will crime or fraud disappear because of this? No. But we do believe that it’s going to make it better."
The original post office plan was to give PMB holders until October 26 to begin using the new designations in order to allow people time to deplete old stationery and generate new stock. Last Friday, faced with widespread protest, officials agreed to delay implementation a further six months.
The PMB rule has many different implications for small-business operators, most of them bad. Parfrey, for example, has published 30 titles worldwide that carry his address — without the PMB designation. After April 26, 2000, all mail coming from customers using that address will go undelivered, including orders for more books.
Proving one’s actual address isn’t as easy as it seems for many CMRA customers. Some do not have a fixed address, and others do not have the correct identification — Social Security cards and birth certificates are no longer acceptable. Folks living on boats or in mobile homes now have to supply the make, model, color and license-plate number of their abode to receive anything from Social Security and Medicare checks to tax forms.