Private Mail Boxes and the Right to Privacy

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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.haveemerged to meet the demands of small businesses. Unlike post offices, CMRAshave convenient business hours and accept deliveries from private carrierssuch as Federal Express as well as from the USPS. They also give smallenterprises a professional aura, since those businesses can list an addressas a number or suite, such as "123 Main St. #401."

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

All private box holders will have to contact every person or entitythatmight 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 linein the address, because, starting in mid-October, the USPS will not delivermail to CMRAs without this code.

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

The adverse effects are enormous. By making business box holders'personalinformation available to anyone who walks in off the street, theseregulations, a breach of the USPS's own privacy rules, aid "identitythieves": criminals who steal other people's credit card numbers, chargebills to others, steal from bank accounts and the like.

Women who use private boxes for business purposes might findunstableex-husbands or stalkers acquiring home addresses courtesy of the postoffice. A June 15 National Coalition Against Domestic Violence "ActionAlert" stated, "These unnecessary regulations make it more difficult for abattered woman to effectively use a commercial postal box to keep herlocation confidential. . . . The impact for domestic violence victims ispotentially fatal."

Owners and tenants of executive office suites are also in for asurprise.The USPS declared in an April 29 memo that such operations, which providetenants with an operator to take phone calls, a location for mail andpackage delivery, and perhaps a small office, will now be covered by thesepostal regulations. The problem is that few of these enterprises and theirtens of thousands of tenants have been notified. Enterprises that forwardmail to folks who travel the country in RVs also will fall victim to the newrules. Forget Disney World. Better plan that summer trip to your CMRA tofill out forms.

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

Another blow will fall in October when the USPS will stop deliveringotherwise deliverable CMRA mail that does not have "PMB" and a box number ona separate line. It is impossible for private box holders to know who hasinformation about them filed under the old, pre-"PMB" address. Mostindividuals, for example, might not think to send a change-of-address formto their automobile's manufacturer or know where to send it. Thus the USPSwould refuse to deliver a recall notice without the PMB address, therebypossibly subjecting the car owner to serious danger.

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

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