USPS Introduces New Guidelines To Reduce Consumer Fraud

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The U.S. Postal Service hopes that reworking its fraud and identity theft guidelines will help stem illegal activities such as schemes to swindle the elderly, credit card frauds, mail-order fraud and identity theft.

The new guidelines, effective April 24, will target people who rent private mailboxes from commercial mail-receiving agencies, which are private businesses that accept their customers' mail from the postal service, hold it for pick-up in a private mailbox or re-mail it to another address. The guidelines were unveiled late last month at a Washington news conference with chief postal inspector Kenneth Hunter and Michael Mansfield, an assistant district attorney in Queens, NY.

Hunter, who heads the inspection service -- an independent law enforcement agency -- said the rule making grew out of increasing concerns from the law enforcement, financial and commercial segments, along with mail-order firms and individual citizens, who were seeing a rise in crime that takes advantage of the anonymity of mail to steal financial identities and re-route goods and services.

The USPS and the Government Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, have estimated that consumers lose about $40 million a year as a result of identity theft and mail fraud. Currently, the postal inspection service is investigating numerous companies and suspects that have used private mailboxes as CMRAs.

In a common scenario, Mansfield said, thieves rent a box and re-route their victims' mail to it after filling out fraudulent change-of-address forms. Often, the criminals will rent the box for only one month before moving on to another address.

Under the new rules, private mailbox renters will be required to provide the renting agency with photo identification and verification that they either live or conduct business at the address they give at the time of the rental. They also will be required to write the letters "PMB" or "private mailbox" and the number of their mailbox on the second line of their mailing address similar to the way people with post office boxes are identified with a P.O. Box number.

"A suite number on a prestigious avenue can give the perception of a well-established business," said Hunter.

Mail without a PMB number will be held by the postal service, and customers with preprinted stationery will be given six months from the effective date to deplete current supplies. Commercial mail receivers also will be required to provide their local postmasters with an alphabetical list of their current and former customers every three months.

"We are not targeting commercial mail-receiving agencies, we are just closing a loophole, if you will, that allows criminals to take advantage of these addresses," said Hunter.

Copies of the new rules have been sent to direct marketers, catalogers, coupons, credit card issuers and law enforcement agencies.

Most associations support the postal inspections service's efforts, including the Advertising Mail Marketing Association, Washington; the International Association of Financial Crimes Investigators, Novato, CA; and the American Banking Association, Washington. Banks support the new mandate as well, he said, because criminals sometimes change the address of legitimate bank customers to an address at a CMRA.

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