Read your mail closely to avoid unwanted stress

Posted Jan. 04, 2009, at 9:33 p.m.

One of my personal New Year’s resolutions is to look more closely at the mail our hard-working letter carrier brings us. There may be more — or less — in the envelope than meets the eye.

One example is the unsolicited gift. If a company mails you some-thing that you did not order or re-quest, you are under no obligation to that company. Period. That in-cludes charities that send you ad-dress labels or other incentives to donate.

U.S. Postal Service regulations say that if you receive a package from a company whose name you don’t recognize, you may simply write “Return to Sender” on it. The post office will send it back at no cost to you. If you open it and like what you see inside, you may keep it — for free. If you don’t like what’s inside, throw it out.

Postal inspectors are not amused by firms that follow such unwanted mailings with bills or dunning let-ters. Your local postmaster can direct you to people who will in-vestigate such violations.

Another kind of mailing is like a costume party; it turns out to be something other than what it ap-pears to be. A recent letter to my home trumpeted “How to reduce taxes on your Social Security bene-fits” (emphasis mine). The dis-claimer notes no connection with government agencies, and it asks for a signature, both spouses’ birthdays and phone a number.

Running the how-to quote above through a search engine uncovers a pamphlet that is, in fact, a pitch for tax-deferred annuities. It includes an advisory that it “should not be used as specific advice for your individ-ual case,” contrary to the original mailing. The back of the brochure includes a fill-in section for a per-son or company’s contact informa-tion for use in direct mail cam-paigns.

Sending our birthdays and phone number would have made the job that much easier for the direct mail-ers and wouldn’t have given us anything of value. It also would have established a “business rela-tionship,” opening us up to further unwanted mailings from that firm and more, should our information be sold to other solicitors. And it would have voided our inclusion on do-not-call lists, because we set up the relationship by giving our in-formation.

A third kind of mailing deserving our attention involves firms with which you do have an ongoing rela-tionship. Your bank, credit card issuer, cable TV company, Internet service provider and government agencies are examples.

As we’ve cautioned before, such entities never do routine business by phone, and the potential for tam-pering has made Internet dealings less than ideal. “Snail mail” is still the best choice for official business, and that’s what your trusted corre-spondents use. Our Internet service provider recently sent a notice about changes in getting our e-mail. The envelope looked like any other mass mailing; only the “time sensitive” banner alerted us that we needed to move it to the top of our “read soon” pile.

FOOTNOTE: Readers of last week’s column who tried to call about free annual credit reports discovered an incorrect phone number. The correct number is 1-877-322-8228.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business member-ships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or e-mail contacex-dir@live.com.

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