Reducing Unsolicited Mail - Updated August, 2012
What's the Problem?
Many people find unsolicited advertising mail irritating. Not only does junk mail invade our privacy and waste paper, the ceaseless promotions may tempt us to buy things we don't really want or need.
The US Environmental Protection Agency reported that in 1999 the quantity of catalogs and other advertising mail in the US was 5.6 million tons, of which 22% is recycled. That means nearly 32 pounds of paper coming to every woman, man and child in the country in the mailbox winds up in landfills and incinerators.
Compared to 1995, the numbers are both encouraging and discouraging. On the one hand, amount of unsolicited mail increased by 300,000 tons or 6%. On the other hand, the percentage that was recycled increased from 15% to 22%.
Nearly half is discarded unread. Even when recycled, junk mail can only be used for low quality products because of the inks, glues, plastics, and variety of paper types, not to mention the occasional shampoo sample or CD ROM disk.
Very little of it finds its way back into new junk mail, which is predominantly made from trees. Paper production, whether from recycled or virgin fibers, uses significant quantities of energy and water and produces waste sludge that must be landfilled, not to mention the vehicle emissions from trucking all that paper around.
Why Do I Get So Much Junk Mail?
There are numerous ways your junk mail can proliferate. When you enter a contest, write a check, subscribe to a magazine, sign up for a credit card, fill out a warranty card, join a professional association, make a donation, buy a house or car, or have a baby, your name may be sold or traded. Getting hold of your name and address is big business, as junk mail comprises 12% of advertising expenditures in this country and generates $1.2 trillion in annual sales.
How Do I Get Rid of It?
Not everyone's mailbox is overflowing and you can limit access to your name and address so that it won't be traded, rented or sold to companies who send you unwanted mail. This section offers you a two step strategy to prevent new junk mail from finding its way to your doorstep and to reduce your current flow of unwanted mail.
This approach may seem time consuming but it is the most effective. It may take several months for deletions to become effective. You must be persistent and you might have to repeat some of the steps. You won't get rid of it all, but you can substantially reduce the amount of junk mail you receive. Whenever possible, tips are offered that make the company sending you the unwanted mail bear the cost of getting your name off their mailing list.
Direct marketers actually benefit when you get off their lists, as it saves them printing and postage costs and improves the targeting of their lists to potential customers.
STEP 1: PREVENTION -- STOP JUNK MAIL BEFORE IT STARTS
These preventative actions will keep junk mail from new sources out of your mailbox. If you do nothing else, register with the Mail Preference Service and the national credit bureau Opt-Out system (first two items below) to remove your name from many national mailing lists of companies who send you catalogs, sweepstakes entries, credit card offers, and other personally addressed advertising mail.
Mail Preference Service
The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) is the largest trade association in the direct marketing field with more than 3,600 member companies. Their Mail Preference Service (MPS) provides consumers with a way to opt out of receiving most personally addressed national advertising mail. This can be done for free online or for $1.00 by mailing in the registration form. Include all variations in spelling that appear on mailings that you receive-even misspellings! For example, Linda Ann Brown might also receive mail as Linda Brown, L.A. Brown, or L. Brown. A consumer's name and address are maintained in the file for five years, unless you sign and mail the opt out for life portion.
This can all be done online by going to https://www.dmachoice.org/dma/member/home.action
When you register with MPS, your name is placed on a "suppression list" which is made available to marketing companies four times a year. Conscientious direct mailers get the suppression list and merge it with their mailing lists to delete all those names. It may take several months to see an effect.
Registering with MPS will not end all advertising mail. You will continue to receive mail from companies with which you do business on a regular basis, or from charitable or commercial organizations which do not choose to use MPS. In addition, you may continue to receive mail from many local merchants, professional and alumni associations, political candidates and mail addressed to "occupant" or "resident." Business mail is not affected by registration with MPS.
July 1, 1999 was the effective date of DMA's Privacy Promise. This requires its members to use the suppression lists and give customers clear and repeated notice that they have a choice not to have their contact information rented, sold or exchanged.
Post Office Change-of-Address Cards
Filling out a change-of-address form when you move is voluntary, but the Post Office won't forward your mail without it. The official Mail Forwarding Change of Address Form (Postal Form 3575) is now privately printed and packaged in a booklet of advertisements. Even the Post Office gets into the promotional spirit by sending you "valuable coupons" about your new neighborhood. The Postal Service sells 40 million names annually from change-of-address cards to mailing list companies. Updates are theoretically provided only to those who already have your name and old address, but list brokers are under no such restrictions when they resell the lists.
As an alternative to filing the change of address form, send out your own postcards announcing your new address to those whose mail you want to receive. You can also ask your old post office to hold your mail for pick up until everyone knows your new address.
The Telephone Book
If you are listed in the White Pages of the telephone book, your name, address and phone number are, for all practical purposes, public record. Mailing list companies collect this information and sell it to marketing firms and also compile directories organized by address and phone number rather than by name. These "street address directories," also known as "reverse directories" or "city directories," are often used for marketing purposes. Such directories are also one of several sources of information used by emergency response agencies.
If you are concerned about keeping your name and address private, consider having an unlisted number. There is an additional monthly charge if you are an Ameritech customer. Or request that the local phone company publish just your name and phone number and omit your address, for which there is no charge. You need to request this by June 16 in order to be kept out of the new directory which is published in September.
Ask the phone company to remove your listing from its "street address directory." If your name is unlisted in the phone book, it will not be sold. Otherwise, call or write to the major independent directory companies and request that your listing be removed. As these companies compile many types of lists, specify that you want your name excluded from city directories. At the same time you can ask to be removed from their mailing and telemarketing lists.
Haines & Company, Inc., publisher of Criss-Cross Directory: 800-562-8262 R. L. Polk & Co., Opt-Out Program: 800-873-7655 [Polk is now owned by Equifax.]
The main purpose for warranty cards is to provide demographic and lifestyle information to marketers. Your warranty will still be valid if you keep proof of purchase, even if you don't fill out a warranty card. The only thing you might miss out on is news of a product recall. If you want to return the card for that reason, only provide your name, address and product serial number. Be sure to check the opt-out box on the card if there is one, or write a note saying you don't want your name used for marketing purposes. Demographic information is compiled by the Polk Company, a DMA member, so registering with the Mail Preference Service should eliminate mail from this source. You may also call Polk's Opt-Out number: 800-873-7655.
Supermarket "buyers club" cards do more than give you a discount. They allow the store to find out your buying preferences so they or other businesses can more effectively market you. To preserve your privacy, don't use the card and forego the discount.
Junk Mail You Want To Get
Almost by definition, "junk" mail is mail you don't want. You probably do want to keep getting certain magazines, newsletters and catalogs, so there are some mailing lists you may want to stay on. However, you should contact these organizations and companies to let them know about your privacy concerns and request that your name be kept on an "in-house list" only. [Keep in mind that list exchange is common among non-profits as well as businesses.]
Others to contact with the same request include: 1) each institution issuing you a credit card; 2) your local and long distance telephone carriers; 3) your cable company; 4) your internet service provider, and 5) airline frequent flyer programs.
The price of liberty from unwanted mail is being vigilant whenever you give out your name and address. Special cases to watch for are included in the Prevention section above. When signing up for a credit card, making a donation, ordering an item through the mail, joining an organization, or subscribing to a publication, tell the organization or company not to release your name to anyone else. However, they often ignore the initial request, so contact them again a few weeks later.
These national advertisers compile huge databases of customers across the country, usually for mailing coupons and local weekly circulars. Because these items are printed well in advance, it takes up to 8 weeks for the opt-out to become effective.
Val-Pak Cox Target Media: http://www.coxtarget.com/mailsuppression/s/DisplayMailSuppressionForm
Mailbox Values, ShopWi$e (ADVO, Inc): www.advo.com/consumersupport.html
STEP 2: DELETION -- GET OFF CURRENT JUNK MAIL LISTS
As soon as you receive an unwanted piece of direct mail, especially if you have seen one like it before, contact the mailer to see that you don't get any more. Tips in this section offer help in getting off lists for specific types of mailings. If you continue to get the same mail for more than a few months, be persistent. Contact the company again and insist that they delete your name. If all else fails, file a Post Office Prohibitory Order, below.
Mail Order Catalogs
Catalog mailing lists are perhaps the easiest to get off. Call their toll-free number and ask to be removed from their mailing list. Most companies courteously comply, and they pay for the call. Unfortunately, these are among the easiest lists to get back on.
If you are a customer of one mail order company, you are likely to receive offers from other companies, as firms commonly rent their mailing list to other businesses. For example, if you subscribe to a cooking magazine, you may find yourself receiving mail order catalogs for kitchen supplies and food specialties. Registering with the DMA Mail Preference Service (see above) should stop the exchange of your name among DMA-member companies.
Don't enter, and don't be tempted to buy their products. A contest that sounds too good to be true probably is. Sweepstakes mailings account for roughly one billion pieces of mail each year in the US. DMA studies show that 11 percent of Americans bought products or subscribed to magazines in response to sweepstakes promotions, believing, incorrectly, that the purchases would increase their chances of winning. The odds of winning are incredibly low (published odds of winning the $1 million prize in the 1998 Reader's Digest sweepstakes: 600 million to 1). However, the odds of getting on other mailing lists are almost certain.
The major nationwide sweepstakes mailers are members of the DMA, so MPS registration should keep you from getting this type of mail. If you are receiving their sweepstakes mailings, call to have your name removed from their lists.
-- Publishers Clearinghouse: 800-645-9242 -- Readers Digest: 800-234-9000-- American Family Publishers: 800-237-2400
Refusing & Sending Back Mail
The Postal Service is required by law to deliver mail if proper postage is paid. However, you don't have to accept it.
Some unopened mail may be sent back. This works for all first class mail and any bulk mail marked "Address Correction Requested" or "Return Postage Guaranteed." Cross out your name and write "Return to Sender-Refused by addressee-Remove Name from Mailing List." The mailer pays the postage for the return trip, so they get the message.
If a postage-paid Business Reply envelope was included, send it back with the card that has your name and address printed on it. Write a note next to your name such as "Please remove my name from your mailing list." While you are at it, you can stuff all the paper they sent you back in the envelope, too. They pay the postage and get to deal with their waste. Business Reply postcards also let you contact the company at their expense.
Refusing bulk mail is also allowed by the Post Office. Write "REFUSED" on unopened junk mail and leave it in your mailbox, flagging your carrier for pickup. Unfortunately, all the Post Office will do is pick up and toss out refused mail (at best, recycle it), but the company that sent it will never know, and they will keep sending more until you communicate with them directly.
Dear Occupant Mail
Advertisers can reach everyone in a town or neighborhood with a "saturation mailing" addressed to "Resident" or "Occupant" at a discounted postage rate. Advertisers buy mailing lists of street addresses from list brokers, who regularly obtain updated information from the Postal Service.
Here are opt-out options for some common "Occupant" mailings:
1) Rural Routes and Box Holders
Residents on rural routes or with P.O. Box addresses face a greater challenge than most in getting off lists addressed to "Occupant" or "Resident." Since the mailing companies are allowed to use a simplified address that only identifies the postal carrier route without specific box numbers, the mailers cannot delete specific addresses. In this situation, after notifying the mailer, a resident must also call on the Post Office for assistance in stopping the offending mail. The Post Office complies by having the mail carrier put a notice on the inside of the mailbox specifying which mailing is not wanted. The Postal Service Prohibitory Order (see below) is available if your Post Office seems reluctant to assist you in stopping a mailing.
2) Prohibitory Order
As a last resort, if you cannot stop mail from a particular non-governmental mailer, the ultimate tool is to formally enlist the help of the Post Office by filing an Application for Prohibitory Order, Postal Service Form 1500, at any Post Office. While the Order, established by Federal law in 1968, was initially designed to stop sexually provocative advertising, court cases have held that the determination of what constitutes offensive material is at the sole discretion of the recipient. For example, if clear-cutting of virgin forests to produce glossy advertising strikes you as obscene, you can use the Prohibitory Order to stop the mailings if other methods have not been successful.
"Every man's mail today is made up overwhelmingly of material he did not seek from persons he does not know. And all too often it is matter he finds offensive," Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote for the majority in the 1970 US Supreme Court case, Rowan v. US Post Office. "A vendor does not have a constitutional right to send unwanted material into someone's home."
Form 1500 is free and only requires your name and address and the sender's. Turn in the form with a copy of the offensive mailing. If the mailing doesn't stop in 30 days, it is the Postmaster's responsibility to send a certified letter to the sender and enforce the law. The prohibition is for a specific mailer, so you can't say you find all junk mail offensive and want it stopped.
Contact the following for more information on stopping junk mail and related topics such as telemarketing, spam (junk e-mail), and junk faxes.
Stop Junk Mail Forever-Telemarketing & Spam, Too (28-page booklet, currently $4.50) Good Advice Press: 800-255-0899; www.goodadvicepress.com EcoFuture (Internet site with good tips & links to other resources); www.ecofuture.org/ecofuture