Tuesday, September 18, 2007

USPS -- the biggest spammers of all

Not too long ago I moved into a new apartment. In my previous digs I had lucked out and befriended the daily postman who volunteered to filter out the junkmail and circulars. While I got the occasional flyer from the local supermarket, my mailbox was more or less unmolested.

Fast forward today. I received the following junkmail:

  • EZ Lube (West Coast Oil change / service facility)
  • Party America. I forgot. It is now September which means send me some crap about Halloween.
  • Circulars from Albertsons, Vons, Ralphs, Wild Oats, Smart and Final, and Pavilions. 6 grocery stores.

This happens several times per week and the contents vary. Those large krinkley envelopes with 800 coupons inside are a common occurrence as are things for elderly citizens. Today's bundle was the recycled equivalent of 36 8-1/2"x11" sheets of paper. If you take the bundle, stack it neatly and roll it tightly, it is the rough equivalent of a 12" long, ~1/4-1/2" diameter piece of wood. If I saw some guy walking down the street throwing 3 dozen sheets of paper or lopping a branch off of every tree at every house, it would take about half a dozen houses before I'd bust out some Chuck Norris moves and do the world a favor by running him down in my Jeep.

This has been going on basically since I moved in, and this is not the first place I've experienced this sort of blatant spamming. All it takes is one resident at some point in time to give their address, and all other future tenants at or near that address will be bombarded with every piece of imaginable snail mail spam, 5-6 days per week rain or shine.

I've actually considered submitting a change of address form for "Resident" at my current address, as most of this garbage seems to come addressed to something like that. "Valued Customer", even. I'm not sure where I'd send it to, but I think the local recycling facility would be the equivalent of /dev/null and all of this shit would go directly back to recycling.

"Just unsubscribe", you say. Right. There are dozens of companies contracted to gather data from the USPS almost entirely for the purpose of targeted mailings. Want to send mail to every postal customer in 90210? Sure, the USPS will let you do that, but it'll cost you. All postal addresses with a likely Latino name ending in "ez"? Sure. That'll be $99.95 per 500 addresses. It is a losing battle for those on the receiving end.

Imagine if something similar happened in the electronic world. The offending party would quickly be blacklisted, banned, dropped, slapped about, or otherwise publicly embarrassed within hours of the incident. Why doesn't this happen in the physical mail delivery world? At least in the United States, this is because the USPS has complete control over all aspects of mail delivery. A monopoly, if you will. Checkmate.

The strange thing, at least to me, is that there is no program that I know of that the USPS offers that allows you to enable junkmail filtering. Lets say such a mythical beast cost $5 month. Would you pay it? I would. In a heartbeat. Turn that $5 on its heels -- does the USPS gain $5 from those who send the flyers? Over the course of a month for a single postal address, I'm going to say it cost considerably less than that to send flyers. I would be very surprised if the USPS could not make a considerable profit by enabling customers to filter their incoming snail mail.

Are things in other countries any different? I'd like to think so. Even within the US, you can see vast differences in postal vs. package delivery. When was the last time you received snail mail spam from... DHL, UPS or FedEx? Probably never.

In the short term, I have deployed greylisting on my USPS approved mailbox. Several strips of duct-tape fastened over the entrance with a slit sufficient for your average business letter envelope to be crammed through. Anything else, tough.