Stop Junk Mail Forever

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Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could stop junk mail and not have to deal with massive piles like this?
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If humanity establishes a base on the moon, junk mail will probably follow them there.

Every American, on average, receives 677 sales pitches in
his or her mailbox every year–thanks to low-cost,
third-class postal rates. While the direct mailers who
produce and distribute those 40 million tons of sales
pitches take in over $200 billion annually, taxpayers bear
the burden of some $320 million to cart their unsolicited
promos, pleas, and promises to and from incinerators,
garbage dumps (on land and sea), and recycling centers.
Sixty-eight million trees and 28 billion gallons of water
(and the animals who lived there) are used to produce each
year’s crop of catalogs and come-ons. Nearly half get
trashed unopened.

Many of the environmental organizations that you’d expect
to speak up for the trees, rivers, and wildlife don’t want to stop junk mail either. Why? Because they support themselves just
like the other mailbox fishermen do: by casting an
extremely wide net to catch a couple of fish. A “response
rate” of 1% or 2%–that’s 1 or 2 of every 100 pieces
mailed–is considered typical, no matter if the mailer
is a worthy charity … or the distributor of yet one more
vegetable slicer.

There’s another issue of great concern to us: Privacy. We
think Americans should have the right to choose how
personal information about them is marketed, if at all.
What follows are some clear instructions on how to keep
your name, business, address, and other personal
information, private-off of those thousands upon thousands
of mailing lists that are regularly bought and sold,
without our approval, for pennies a name.

But the privacy implications go well beyond junk mail.
Until recently, anyone who wanted to find you–be it a
bill collector, abusive spouse, or crazed
stalker–could walk into your old post office, after
you’d moved, and get your new address. All that was
required was $3 and presentation of your former address.
Finally realizing this danger, the U.S. Postal Service is
changing the regulation that allows such easy access to
your new address. But in many states, it remains nearly as
simple to find you from your motor vehicle records.

Whoever Profits Should Pay the Costs

Direct-mail advertisers and the Post Office say that
third-class/bulk rates are calculated to compensate the
Post Office for its costs of handling and delivery. We’re
told that first-class stamp buyers like us (we never ship
third class) “don’t subsidize waste mail,” as one postal
official calls it. Perhaps that’s true. I’m not convinced.

A solution might be the idea of
“solid-waste-management rates” for junk mail, which
were first proposed by Richard Bossert, of New York’s
Consumer Protection Board (R. Kessel, Chair). These rates
would cover the full costs of delivery and
disposal–with enough extra tossed in to pay for
environmental damage.

We believe that caring, direct mailers who use a more
carefully focused marketing strategy, rather than the
current scatter-shot approach, can create more jobs,
satisfy more customers, and earn more, while protecting
the planet.

Name Game

If you’ve ever bought anything through the mail–a
magazine, a pair of slippers, a ream of paper for the
office, or a packet of seeds–chances are the company
that you patronized increased its profits by renting,
selling, or trading your name, as well as other pertinent,
personal information about you.

Here’s how it works: Say you buy something from a
mail-order firm we’ll call Trinkets for Tots, whose catalog
features items to keep preschoolers amused. Trinkets for
Tots sends you what you ordered and adds your name to its
customer list. Through a member of the vast list-brokering
industry, your name is rented for what’s called, “a
one-time use,” to other–usually related, but not
directly competitive companies (such as mail order suppliers
of kids’ clothes).

And if you’ve ever given money to a cause or charity
…watch out! For example, people who’ve donated to
conservative causes wind up in “politically conservative
direct-mail donors” files. Broader based givers can be
targeted through “Donoreach,” which offers some 12 million
names “that can be selected by type of cause and even
multidonors to the same or different causes.” The 2.2
million contributors to the Muscular Dystrophy Association
and its annual telethon are sold on lists “enhanced with
exact age, income, and 26 mail-response-interest
categories to help you target your best prospects,”
according to Donoreach.

No luck? maybe it’s time for an “improved species of new
donors”–the American Museum of Natural History’s
list–“they’ll contribute to anything…,” the ad
says.

The more targeted the list of names, the higher the price
it commands. For example, R.L. Polk, a giant in the
list-brokering field, charges $40 per thousand for its
“Household List” (79 million names). But Polk’s more
specific “New Mover List” goes for $130 per thousand, based
on the assumption that they are hot prospects for
businesses like insurance brokers, restaurants, and
furniture stores. Once a mailing-list broker gets your
name, it can be sold to literally hundreds of
organizations.

As computers make it easier to collect more information
about more people and more businesses, the number of
organizations you have to ask to STOP sending you stuff
seems to increase exponentially. R.L. Polk says that its
lists are developed by the “merging of 22 sources, totaling
more than 1.8 billion records annually.”

As the U.S. Post Office reports in “The Small Business
Direct Mail Guide,” which it puts out to encourage more
junk mail:

“Direct- mail lists are compiled in hundreds of ways from
numerous sources, ranging from voter registrations to
attendees of trade shows, from the neighbors of your
existing customers to people buying similar
products/services.”

The One-Shot SemiSolution

The quickest way to have your name and address removed from
many–but by no means, all–lists is through the
Mail Preference Service, sponsored by the Direct Marketing
Association (DMA).

When you request this trade organization’s free service,
include your name and address–in all the various ways
they appear on the junk mail you receive. Your name and address will be registered on DMNs “Delete
File,” which is reportedly used by the majority of this
organization’s 3,600 members, who receive it four times a
year (January, April, July, and October). So it could take
three months or more for your wishes to be acted upon.

Once your name makes it to the “Delete File,” it will
remain there for five years–unless, of course, you
order something else and forget to say, “Please do not
sell, rent, or trade my name.”

Place a new order, or request a catalog, and–unless
you say those magic words to an outfit that respects your
rights–your name, address, and mountains of other
personal statistics will again be fair game, as your
mailbox will soon attest.

Even if you’re careful, unless our nation comes up with a
better system, you’ll need to recontact the Mail Preference
Service every five years, to continue your respite from the
junk-mail lists that DMA members control.

And Now for the Rest of the Story

Unfortunately, although “business-to-business” junk mail
accounts for about 25% of third-class mail, it’s not
covered by the Mail Preference Service. In fact, only about
70% of national direct marketers subscribe to DMA’s Mail
Preference Service. Nonprofit organizations, political
groups, and local marketers generally don’t subscribe at
all.

Therefore, to really stop junk mail, you’ll also need to:

1. Contact all the organizations whose mailings you’d
rather not receive–at home or at the office–and
tell them to remove you from their data bases.

2. Be very careful about giving out your name, business,
address, and phone number. When you do give them out, make
sure to request that your name be placed on an “in-house
list only.”

3. Avoid the U.S. Post Office’s change-of-address system
when moving.

4. Consider getting an unlisted telephone number.

In our view, a little duplication in the pursuit of a
solution to this problem is no vice. The more we all get
the message across–that direct mailers should target
their lists far more carefully and be more environmentally
sensitive to their customer’s wishes–the better.

The Big (Bad?) List Brokers

To get out of the biggest list brokers’ data bases, send
your name, address, and phone number to the following four
organizations. Request that your personal information be
removed from all their mailing and telemarketing lists.

R. L. Polk & Co.–“Name Deletion File”
List
Compilation and Development
26955 Northwestern Highway
Southfield, Michigan 48034-4716

Donnelley Marketing, Inc.
Database Operations
416 South Bell
Ames, IA 50010

Metromail Corporation
List Maintenance
901 West Bond
Lincoln, NE 68521

Database America
Compilation Department
470 Chestnut Ridge Road
Woodcliff, New Jersey 07677

If you operate a business, you may also need to write to:

Dun & Bradstreet
Customer Service
899 Eaton Avenue
Bethlehem, PA 18025

There are more list brokers, to be sure–but from what
we could gather, the others remove names only when they
appear in the Mail Preference Service’s “Delete File.” They
won’t respond to individual requests.

Credit-Bureau Lists

TRW, Equifax, and Trans Union are the three largest credit
bureaus in the United States. They’re the ones who gather
the information that lenders use to decide whether or not
to approve your credit and loan applications.

Credit bureau reports typically include your name, address,
date of birth, social security number, employer’s name and
address, as well as your payment history on loans, credit
cards, and other bills.

While “the big three” keep the particulars of your
financial situation private, if your credit’s good, they’ll
sell your name to banks and credit-card
companies–thus all those preapproved, but unsolicited
credit card applications.

By the way, Congress is considering a new
“consumer-reporting-reform” bill to curb some of
these marketing practices. Under the proposed law, banks
and credit card companies couldn’t go “fishing” for
prospects by sending out so-called preapproved applications
that in fact still need approvals. Credit-card
solicitations would have to be firm offers of credit. You’d
be told how your name was obtained and exactly how you
could “opt-out” of future mailings. Of course, there’s a
long road from congressional bill to final law. Until then,
to be removed from the credit bureaus’ direct-marketing
files, write to:

TRW–Target Marketing Services
Consumer Opt Out
601 TRW Parkway
Allen, TX 75002
(800) 353-0809

Equifax Options
P.O. Box 740123
Atlanta, GA 30374-0123
(800) 755-3502

Trans Union
Transmark, Inc.
List Division
555 West Adams Street, 7th Floor
Chicago, IL 60661
(800) 680-7293

Warranty Cards: Don’t Fill Them Out!

Also known as product-registration cards, these are
packaged with everything from VCRs, televisions, and fax
machines, to toasters, irons, and hair dryers. When you buy
a warranted product, the card usually gets returned not to
the manufacturer, but to a post office box–often in
Denver, Colorado.

For example, say you just purchased a combination
telephone-and-thumb exerciser that was infomercialed on
insomniac TV. It arrives with a warranty card for you to
return to Whatzit Manufacturing at P .O. Box 173035, in
Denver.

P.O. Box 173035 isn’t rented by Whatzit. It belongs to
National Demographics & Lifestyles (NDL), which manages
a consumer database of over 30 million names, gathered
from product registrations for about 100 companies. These
cards contain questions about income, marital status, and
hobbies, to name but a few. Once a warranty card is
returned, the information is matched up with facts NDL
collects from other sources, to develop a profile of each
of us, as consumers–which NDL then sells to direct
marketers.

You’re covered by the manufacturer’s warranty–whether
you return the card or not. In fact, many cards include a
statement like the following: “Failure to return the
warranty card will not affect your rights under this
warranty, so long as you retain another proof of purchase,
such as a bill of sale.” There’s really only one reason to
return a warranty card–to find out about product
recalls. If you return a card for that reason, provide only
your name, address, and the product’s serial number. NDL
reports that it now includes a checkoff box, where you can
indicate that you don’t want your name sold. But many
warranty cards don’t have them. If you decide to return a
card without a check-off box, add a note saying that you
want your name kept private. To be removed from the lists
NDL markets, contact:

National Demographics & Lifestyles
Customer Service Department
1621 18th Street, #300
Denver, CO 80202
(800) 525-3533

Another Benefit (Ha) of Credit Cards

As you might expect, credit-card companies use their
customer mailing lists to keep members informed about
benefits and special events–as well as to market
their own goods and services. They also let other companies
send promotional materials to cardholders, either along
with billing statements or through separate mailings. If you’re an American Express cardholder who
wants a breather from all these promos, it’s relatively
easy. Ask Amex to remove your name from its direct marketing
lists. You can opt out of the Amex in-house lists, the
outside company lists, or both. Contact:

Customer Service
American Express
200 Vesey Street-Tower C
New York, NY 10285

To get your name removed from other credit-card companies’
mailing lists, call or write the customer service office
for each card–the address and phone number should be
listed on your statement. If you have five MasterCards and
eight Visas, all from different banks, you need to contact
all 13, since neither MasterCard nor Visa has a central
customer-service bureau. Note: When you write to a
credit-card company, spend the extra dime, and put your
request in a sealed envelope. Account numbers should never
be publicly displayed.

Beware the Supermarket Scanner

Are you carrying around one of those plastic cards from
your local supermarket that entitles you to loads of extra
savings without clipping coupons? Think the store got you
to apply for this card just to save you some money? Think
again. Once the checkout clerk “swipes” your card, your
name and address are linked to the items you just bought.
It’s another way to find out your buying “preferences,” so
the supermarket can put you on yet more mailing lists.

Magazines List and List

To make sure that your name isn’t sold to a list broker
when you subscribe to a magazine, enclose a note with your
order requesting that your name be put on an “in-house list only.” After receiving the first issue, call the
magazine’s subscription department (the phone number will
be listed within the first few pages of the magazine), to
verify that your name has been omitted from any lists that
get sold, rented, or traded. If you’re already a
subscriber, look for the magazine’s change of address
notice. Often, you’ll find instructions there about how to
“opt-out” of the mailing lists the magazine sells.

Post Office Change-of-Address Form

Chances are, the last time you moved, you filled out a
change-of-address form at the post office, known in
bureaucratese as “#3575.” Most of us fill them out so we
won’t miss Rachel’s surprise postcard from Bora
Bora–or some magazine we forgot to alert in time
about the new address.

The U.S. Post Office also takes the liberty of notifying a
few other folks about our comings and goings. Look at the
front of Form #3575, and you’ll see this Privacy Act
Statement: “Filing this form is voluntary, but your mail
cannot be forwarded without an order. If filed, your new
address will be provided to individuals and companies who
request it. This will occur only when the requester is
already in possession of your name and old mailing
address…” That’s better than the previous statement, in
which the U.S. Post Office just told you that your new
address “may be given to others.” Another improvement in
the works is that it’s going to be more difficult to get
new addresses for those under court protection, such as
battered women. However, buying and selling will remain a
thriving business for both the Post Office and direct
mailers. Here’s how it works:

The forwarding information on the almost 40 million
Americans who fill out these forms each year is rented via
the National Change of Address system (NCOA) to some 25
private businesses licensed by the U.S. Postal Service. (At
last report those licensees pay $80,000 up front and
$56,000 a year for the pleasure–and profit–of
being notified that you’ve changed your address.) Not
surprisingly, included among the licensees are some of the
largest mailing-list brokers, direct-mail merchants, and
credit bureaus in the country–TRW, R.L. Polk, and
Donnelley Marketing, for example. These outfits sell those
40 million annual change of address records to other
companies …which is how marketers who have your old
address on file know where you’ve moved.

If your name and address are already floating through the
NCOA system via a change of address form, you can ask to be
taken out of the NCOA database. Send your request,
including your name and both your old and new addresses to:

National Customer Support Center
NCOA Department
225 N Humphreys Blvd Ste 501
Memphis TN 38188-1001

A congressional subcommittee investigating the NCOA system
turned up an interesting finding. So it can provide
bulkrate mailers with apartment numbers of city dwellers,
the Post Office has been conducting an experiment in New
York City, trying to create a refined data base by
referring to apartment directories and speaking with
building managers.

Although many New Yorkers intentionally leave apartment
numbers off their addresses to protect their privacy and
safety, the Post Office contends that, just like the NCOA
system, no one would be given the apartment number who
didn’t already have your address. If the Post Office likes
the results of its experiment in New York, could your city
be next on the list?

Even Uncle Sam Sells Names

If you’ve ever ordered a publication from the U.S.
Superintendent of Documents, the federal government may
have sold your name and address to private companies. A
spokesperson says the Superintendent of Documents sells
only the names of people or businesses who’ve ordered
highly specialized periodicals and only after asking their
permission on an order form. If you’d like to be deleted
from mailing lists sold by Uncle Sam, send your name and
address, along with the name of the government periodical
you receive, to:

Superintendent of Documents
Attention: Direct Mail Manager
732 North Capitol St., NW-Mail Stop SM
Washington, D.C. 20401
202-512-2258

Motor-Vehicle Bureaus

Many state departments of motor vehicles (DMVs) sell their
data–including make and model of cars owned–to
mailing-list brokers. These brokers, in turn, use the
detailed information they obtain here and elsewhere, to
compile sophisticated lists, for example, of owners of a
particular make of car. A dealer could then send you a
personalized mailing offering a specially priced
winterizing for your 1989 Blue Camaro or the opportunity to
attend a “sneak preview” of the latest in minivans. In some
states, citizens can extricate themselves, either by
indicating a “no-mailing-list” preference on application
forms, or by contacting their department of motor vehicles.
Check with your DMV office; each state’s regulations
differ.

But by and large, your driving record is fair game to a
potential employer, or anyone else who’s willing to pay as
little as $2 (the going rate in Oregon, for example). This
information is a matter of public record, say the DMVs,
which means there’s nothing you can do to keep interested
parties from knowing your traffic violations. Another good
reason to drive defensively.

If legislation pending in congress passes, information from
your DMV records will only be given to people with a
“specific business-related reason for obtaining the
information.” That’ll still include direct marketers, but
the DMV will have to give you a chance to say “no
thanks.”

Dear “Resident”

Do packets of ads, coupons, or product samples sent to
“occupant” tend to go directly from your mailbox to the
circular file? Request that your address (since your name
never appears) be removed from the mailing lists of the
following companies. They’re the major players in this
business, distributing literally billions of coupons,
fliers, and what have you, to millions of households, every
year:

ADVO Inc.
Consumer Assistance
P.O. Box 249
Windsor, CT 06095
203-520-3200

Carol Wright Gifts
Customer
Service
P.O. Box 7823
Edison, NJ 08818-7823

Harte
Hanks Direct Marketing
List Maintenance
100 Alco Place
Baltimore, MD 21227-2090
410-247-0666

Money Mailer LLC
12131 Western Ave.
Garden Grove, CA 92841-2914
714-265-4100

Val-Pak Coupons
Address Information Department
8605 Largo Lakes Drive
Largo, FL 33773

(To come off Val-Pak’s lists, send along your complete
address label from the next Val-Pak mail ing you receive.)

Want to Sock It to Them?

For the junk you can’t seem to stop, here are three protest
options:

1. For the few unwanted pieces that come to you via
first-class mail, mark them with something like, “Return to
Sender. Don’t send me your junk.” They’ll go back to the
mailers–at their expense–for them to
trash–also at their expense.

2. With third-class mail that’s accompanied by a
postage-paid envelope, you can stuff the junk into it, and
write your rendition of “Stop sending me junk mail” on the
outside. Pop it in the mailbox, and again, the mailer pays.

3. Although it’s not the sort of information that the U.S.
Post Office likes to volunteer, you can refuse any piece of
mail. Since direct mailers rarely guarantee return postage,
the Post Office will become responsible for disposing of
most of the junk mail you refuse.

Unfortunately, until the system changes, that won’t save us
any money. As taxpayers and stamp buyers, we’ll continue to
pay. But maybe, just maybe, if the Post Office has to
handle a few million tons of refused garbage, it’ll finally
revise the rate schedules so that those who send,
spend–for the disposal and environmental costs
associated with their sales pitches. Then maybe the direct
mailers will more carefully target their prospects and send
their offerings only to those people who are very likely to
be responsive.

There Are a Few Hopeful Signs

More and more third-class mail is arriving with “opt-out”
check-off boxes. It’s getting easier to say “No!” to direct
marketing campaigns–and to get rid of duplicate
mailings. Recycling is another positive trend. At long
last there are large-scale efforts underway to reclaim
more of what used to be waste. For example, more of those
promos are being printed on recycled paper. And in the
Northeast, 1,000 communities are participating in the
Marcal Paper Mills’ Recycling Project. Marcal picks up
magazines, catalogs, advertising, and bulk business mail,
as well as white office paper, to be recycled into Marcal
tissues, toilet paper, and napkins.

Check with your local solid-waste agency to see if the
Marcal program, or something similar, exists in your area.
If not, encourage the powers-that-be to start one. (Marcal
welcomes inquiries about its program from people in the
Northeast.)

And as we’ve detailed, there’s a chance that congress will
pass some useful legislation. It would help if you’d send
postcards to your elected officials to let them know how
much you value privacy and discourage the depredation of
the environment, and that you support legislation to curb
junk mail. You can write to them at:

U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515 or…
U.S. Senate
Washington, DC 20510

May you live junk-mail free, happily ever after.

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368