Sunday, March 9, 2008

R.I.P., Dead Letter

Postal workers pride themselves in using every means possible to try to deliver the mail. There are many reasons why the post office cannot complete their task ... the recipient may have moved without leaving a forwarding address, or the address may be incorrect. Normally, these letters would be returned to the sender. However, without a legible, valid return address, the letter becomes a dead letter.

A dead letter is a letter that cannot be delivered to its intended recipient and it cannot be returned to its sender. Basically, the postal service has no way performing their job of moving a letter from sender to recipient. In the U.S., the letter is sent to the Mail Recovery Center. Prior to the 1990s, this office was called the Dead Letter Office.

Privacy of letters and packages is of utmost concern to postal workers. By U.S. law, no postal worker can open and read mail, except for the workers at the Mail Recovery Centers. These workers are permitted to closely examine the envelope and open and read a minimal amount of the letter, in order to try to determine either the sender or intended receiver of the letter. Letters with valuable contents (cash, insurance policies, etc.) are opened and examined closely for clues about their owners, while the remainder are shredded.

Packages are treated in a similar way, except that if the sender/recipient cannot be determined, the items in the package are auctioned off, provided the contents are not firearms nor pornographic items. The proceeds from these auctions, which are open to the public, help to offset the costs incurred by the mail recovery attempts. Because of the high volume of dead letters and parcels that must be processed (over 50 million postal items in the U.S. each year), the Mail Recovery Centers are expensive to operate.

As one can imagine, the workers at the Mail Recovery Centers see a wide variety of items. Inside the undeliverable parcels, they have found animals, such as snakes, birds, and insects, as well as drugs, guns, human remains, and even a World Series ring. In the case of the legal goods, if the intended recipient cannot be found, the items may be held for 90 days (1 year for very rare items) and then auctioned away. Occasionally, a claim for lost parcels will be matched with the actual item, and the goods will get shipped to where they were intended and not face the auctioneer.

If we lived in a perfect world, dead letters and dead parcels would never exist. None of these items would have been lost and needed to be opened, examined, and possibly auctioned away, if customers legibly addressed their mail and always included a return address.

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