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Box Busters 

Post office puts squeeze on private mail service

Wednesday, Jun 30 1999
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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.

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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.

The National Coalition for the Homeless is challenging the address requirement as discriminatory. The Washington, D.C.– based group argues that since there is no mandate that people who live in homes or work in offices register with and present identification to the Postal Service, people who live in the streets or in shelters should not be required to, either.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the new rules is the requirement that PMB holders inform their CMRA of their home address and telephone number. According to the form’s Privacy Act Statement, the Postal Service may disseminate this personal information to an "appropriate government agency, domestic or foreign, for law-enforcement purposes," to the Federal Records Center "for storage," to the Office of Management and Budget, and to labor organizations. And if the address will "be used for soliciting or doing business with the public," the address would be made available "to anyone."

Fear of easy access to personal data is especially acute for victims of domestic violence. That’s the reason Harvest Home, a shelter for battered women in Santa Monica, uses the Post-Tel Business Center as a mail drop for its clients. The haven’s secret location is unknown even to the CMRA. In a June Action Alert, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence said, "These unnecessary regulations make it more difficult for a battered woman to use a commercial postal box to keep her location confidential . . . The impact for domestic-violence victims is potentially fatal."

Agency spokesman Scherstrom dismisses such criticisms. "The whole reason for these changes was to protect the interests of the American public against fraud and other forms of mail crimes," he said. "This format for private mailboxes exactly parallels the existing one for public mailboxes. And I believe it’s going to work just as effectively for businesses that use private mailboxes as it has for public mailboxes, and it is pro-consumer."

But mail-service proprietors remain skeptical of the Postal Service’s motives. "I believe that these new regulations are anti-competitive," said Jewett of Santa Monica’s Post-Tel. CMRA owners contend that the post office is actually seeking to reclaim some of the business it lost to the private firms, and point to the timing of the regulations’ inception. In the summer of 1997, the independents united to fight a new post office packing service, Pack-and-Send, contending that the government agency had proposed illegally low rates. The Postal Rate Commission agreed and sent Pack-and-Send packing. The new CMRA regulations were first proposed that August. "Is that timing coincidental?" asked Jewett. "Many in our industry don’t think so."

Charmaine Fennie, president of the Napa-based, 2,300-member Associated Mail and Parcel Centers, and part of the Coalition Against Unfair UPS Competition, agrees. She attended a meeting June 23 between the coalition and Postal Service officials in Washington, D.C., in which the agency backed down on some of its new rules. "Right on the heels of Pack-and-Send’s demise, bingo, here comes crushing regulations,"she said. "We felt they were absolutely retaliatory."

CMRA owners like Jewett are also hopping mad at what they perceive to be a new intrusive attitude at the Postal Service. "When we have complained over the years about postal theft and asked for help, the postal inspector told us they had no right to come into our facility, that it wasn’t their jurisdiction," said an owner who claimed to be losing customers unwilling to bend to the new rules. "Now they intend to come in here twice a year, go through our private records and handle mail that has already been put into customers’ boxes. Do they have a right to do that? I don’t think so. Besides, when did the post office become law enforcement? Their job is to deliver the mail."

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