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Postal Service Rules Threaten Privacy

Opinion Editorial
July 23, 1999

By Mike Krause

The U.S. Postal Service bureaucracy has recently launched a major assault on some of its most important competitors: the commercial mail receiving agencies (CMRAs) such as Mail Boxes Etc. The Post Office is imposing new regulations which wipe out privacy for private mail box users. But a chorus of Colorado voices including members of congress and domestic violence prevention advocates has joined together in opposition to the anti-privacy regulations.

At issue is a new regulation establishing additional requirements for private mailboxes. These rules, among other things, require that private mailbox holders change their addresses to include the identifier PMB (Private Mailbox) in the second line of the address. Further, the rules mandate that persons who wish to rent a private mailbox be required to show two forms of identification which include a permanent address, telephone number and a serial number traceable to the renter. All this information would be made available to interested parties. The rules also require the CMRA to send in quarterly lists of new, current and past box holders to the postal service–this last in addition to the form 1583 already required to authorize mail delivery.

The combination of photo IDs, serial numbers, list keeping and identifying symbols–besides attaching a stigma to private mailboxes and their customers–have raised serious privacy concerns.

Chief among these concerns is for those trying to shield their location. Diana Protopapa, interim policy coordinator for the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence says the new regulations are not something we can support out of concerns for the privacy of people hiding from abusive intimate partners or stalkers. Like the Colorado Coalition,   the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has come out against the new regulations.

Another concern is the stigma of the PMB (“private mail box”) designator in the mailing address. Lewis Butler, owner of the South Gaylord Postal Center says he has already had several complaints from customers who have been singled out because they choose to use a private mailbox. A particularly chilling account was of a woman who upon changing her address with her bank was told that the postal service had warned them against sending bank statements to addresses  that harbor criminals.

It is worth noting that part of the rationale for the PMB designator is so that financial institutions such as credit card companies will know that they are sending to a private mailbox. But according to the Associated Mail & Parcel Centers, an industry trade group, the postal service has, since 1994 included a check digit designator in the bar code of private mailbox addresses for just this purpose. In other words, institutional mailers have known for years which addresses are private boxes. This begs the question then, what is the real point of this?

There are also economic considerations at stake. Evan Lasky, Chief Operating Officer for Englewood based Pak-Mail, which has 19 franchises in Colorado, has heard from franchisees that they fear losing up to 20% of their mailbox business as customers opt out of filling out the new forms required. But it is not just the private mailbox companies who should be worried about losing business here. There is every possibility that if the PMB label becomes a red flag as some fear it will, then any number of small entrepreneurs who depend on private mail services could find themselves out of business.

At least two members of the Colorado congressional delegation also oppose the rules, Tom Tancredo and Bob Schaffer, along with 39 other members of congress have signed onto HR Res. 55, which would overturn the new postal rules. This is heartening news, given that Congress as a body has handed over a large chunk of their law making authority to regulatory agencies.

The sponsor of the resolution, Rep. Ron Paul (R- Texas) calls the rules an assault on privacy. Says Paul, Because the Federal Government has granted a monopoly on first class mail delivery to the postal service, Americans cannot receive mail without dealing with them. Therefore this regulation presents those who wish to receive mail at a commercial mail receiving agency with a choice: either surrender your right to privacy or surrender your right to receive legal mail in the manner you prefer.

The U.S. Postal Services justification for these new rules (as described in volume 39, part 111 of the Code of Federal Regulations) comes from the ten (yes, ten) favorable comments received by the postal service during the public comment period. This is particularly disturbing considering that during that same period they received 8,107 comments opposing the rules.

The postal service claims these rules are needed to combat mail fraud and other crimes committed using private mailboxes. This may sound convincing on its face, except that the postal service can give as its only evidence of a problem the following empty statement: we believe the procedures are necessary to prevent the fraud and mail security problems described by the mailers, consumers and law enforcement groups supporting the rule. There are those ten favorable comments, but no hard numbers on fraud involving private boxes.

The postal service is on shaky ground. The anti-privacy reasoning is vague. And the postal service’s disregard for the 800 to 1 negative comments from the public serves only to reinforce the notion that the regulatory apparatus in this country considers the public comment period to matter only as it works in favor of bigger government.

Evidently, the postal service does not like the rising popularity of businesses like Pak Mail, and Mail Boxes Etc. and sees them as a threat to the monopoly over the mail. The intent of the new rules appears to be a concerted effort to give private mailboxes an air of ill repute, to make it inconvenient to have a private mailbox, and to  invade the privacy of box holders.

The postal service is on the wrong side here. Rather than protecting privacy they are seeking to invade it and rather than allowing some consumer choice they are looking to stifle what little competition exists.

Mike Krause wrote this article for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, https://i2i.org.

This article, from the Independence Institute staff, fellows and research network, is offered for your use at no charge. Independence Feature Syndicate articles are published for educational purposes only, and the authors speak for themselves. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action.

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Copyright 2000