Commentary

Private Mail Boxes and the Right to Privacy

By Edward L. Hudgins
June 24, 1999
The U.S. Postal Service has come up with a new way to make sure that bags full of mail are never delivered and that a billion dollars in new costs are imposed on postal customers. No, mail carriers are not surrendering to rain or snow or gloom of night. The culprit is the USPS’s new regulations on private mailbox renters.

Commercial mail-receiving agencies (CMRAs) such as Mail Boxes Etc. have emerged to meet the demands of small businesses. Unlike post offices, CMRAs have convenient business hours and accept deliveries from private carriers such as Federal Express as well as from the USPS. They also give small enterprises a professional aura, since those businesses can list an address as a number or suite, such as “123 Main St. #401.”

In the name of fighting mail fraud, as of June 24 the USPS will deliver only to CMRA customers who have filled out a new Form 1583 and produced two forms of identification, including a photo ID. Copies of each ID will be kept by the CMRA and the USPS. Customers using their boxes for business will have to provide home addresses and phone numbers, and the information will be made available to anyone for the asking.

All private box holders will have to contact every person or entity that might send them mail in the future and advise them that the acronym “PMB” (Private Mail Box) must proceed the renter’s box number on a separate line in the address, because, starting in mid-October, the USPS will not deliver mail to CMRAs without this code.

Over the most recent one-year period for which there are figures, only 15.9 percent, or 1,533 cases, of convictions for mail-related crimes involved fraud, and there are no good figures on how many cases involved private versus P.O. or home boxes. But why is it bad for the USPS, for safety’s sake, to impose a few new rules?

The adverse effects are enormous. By making business box holders’ personal information available to anyone who walks in off the street, these regulations, a breach of the USPS’s own privacy rules, aid “identity thieves”: criminals who steal other people’s credit card numbers, charge bills to others, steal from bank accounts and the like.

Women who use private boxes for business purposes might find unstable ex-husbands or stalkers acquiring home addresses courtesy of the post office. A June 15 National Coalition Against Domestic Violence “Action Alert” stated, “These unnecessary regulations make it more difficult for a battered woman to effectively use a commercial postal box to keep her location confidential… . The impact for domestic violence victims is potentially fatal.”

Owners and tenants of executive office suites are also in for a surprise. The USPS declared in an April 29 memo that such operations, which provide tenants with an operator to take phone calls, a location for mail and package delivery, and perhaps a small office, will now be covered by these postal regulations. The problem is that few of these enterprises and their tens of thousands of tenants have been notified. Enterprises that forward mail to folks who travel the country in RVs also will fall victim to the new rules. Forget Disney World. Better plan that summer trip to your CMRA to fill out forms.

These regulations will not enact themselves automatically. CMRA customers will incur costs for new stationery, change-of-address notices and the time spent processing and mailing out those notices. CMRAs will incur processing costs and lose business. Rick Merritt, a small-business owner who heads up Postal Watch, places the direct costs alone at between $619 million and $994 million. Add more for the time it will take recipients to enter those millions of changes of addresses.

Another blow will fall in October when the USPS will stop delivering otherwise deliverable CMRA mail that does not have “PMB” and a box number on a separate line. It is impossible for private box holders to know who has information about them filed under the old, pre-“PMB” address. Most individuals, for example, might not think to send a change-of-address form to their automobile’s manufacturer or know where to send it. Thus the USPS would refuse to deliver a recall notice without the PMB address, thereby possibly subjecting the car owner to serious danger.

It would be sad but not surprising to suspect that the USPS is using its regulatory authority to cripple its commercial competitors. But whatever its motive, Americans take their privacy seriously. That’s why Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) is trying to stop the new regulations. And that’s why, in the long-run, the U.S. Postal Service should be privatized.

Edward L. Hudgins is director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute.