*Postal Service Proposes Revisions to Private Mailbox Regulations

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The U.S. Postal Service announced proposed revisions Friday to its previously announced policy changes to protect American consumers from mail fraud, after reaching an agreement with industry representatives.


Under the rules, individuals or small mail-order companies who want to receive their mail at commercial mail receiving agencies such as Mail Boxes Etc., have to produce significant personal information -- such as a photo identification and verification that they either live or conduct business at the address they give at the time of the rental -- by June 26, or forgo their rights to receive their mail.


However, instead of giving private mailbox holders until Oct. 26 to place the PMB designation in front of their box number on the second line of their mailing address to signify it as a CMRA mailbox -- as opposed to a suite or apartment-- the postal service has agreed to provide an additional six months, until April 26th, 2000 for CMRA customers to include PMB on their mailings. Mail without a PMB number after the deadline date will not be delivered and will be returned to the sender.


In addition, the USPS is prohibiting release, except for law enforcement purposes, of address information of individuals who use private mailboxes or post office boxes for business purposes-pending final approval. In the interim, postal employees will not release to the public any information about the renters. It is also reemphasizing that acceptable forms of identification do not include social security numbers and credit cards.


"Businesses who use CRMAs asked for more time to implement the changes and they wanted additional safeguards on their privacy of personal information tied to their business," said Kenneth J. Hunter, chief postal inspector at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, an independent law enforcement agency that spearheaded the program. "The Postal Service has listened and is responding."


A notice for public comment will be published in the near future Federal Register regarding the proposed updated policy.


The U.S. proposal angered some merchants and congressmen who said the program unfairly burdens legitimate companies. The USPS has received more than 600 complaints from CMRAs and renters since the rules took effect April 26.


"Customers are complaining about the rules -- all of them," said Roy Gamble, manager of delivery policies and programs at the USPS. "They are concerned because now they have to change their address format [from suite to private mailbox] and they feel it is a stigma, which we don't understand."


The USPS and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service said the ruling would help combat fraud. In a common scenario, criminals rent these types of boxes and reroute 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 to another address.


Currently, there are approximately 10,000 CMRAs, with a total number of box holders estimated at between 1.5 million and 2.5 million. The best known is Mailboxes Etc., which has about 3,300 franchises and about 800,000 box holders. Many of the outlets are small, mom-and-pop operations.


Small-business owners may choose to rent a box from a CMRA because they accept deliveries from private carriers, they have convenient business hours, they offer a stable address for enterprises that may change locations and they offer additional services such as packaging and shipping. Small-business owners also may choose CMRA boxes so their businesses will have a professional appearance.


Some mailing groups also are concerned with the rulings. Postal Watch, Virginia Beach, VA, an organization whose current mission is to challenge and overturn the recent CRMA ruling, said in a statement that costs to businesses will approach $1 billion in the first six months of the new rulings, because of new stationary costs and fees associated with notifying customers about address changes.


In addition, it said billions more will be lost in small business sales as the PMB label destroys the image of CMRA. The group said that if the USPS refuses to deliver mail without the PMB address, there will be serious disruption of delivery, and it will set the precedent that the USPS can refuse to deliver mail if its conditions for doing so are not met -- which is the opposite of its guaranteed universal service mantra.


Congress began looking into the ruling recently, as well. Ron Paul (R-TX) has introduced H.J. Resolution 55, which, if passed, would not allow the postal rule to have any force of effect. Currently, there are more than 20 Democratic and Republican representatives supporting the bill. Paul is hoping this bill, which was introduced May 20, will be considered by the House Committee on Government Reform.


Michael Sullivan, spokesman for Paul, said the bill was presented for two reasons.


"The first is the undue burden this regulation places on the commercial mail organizations -- there is a huge cost that this is going to represent in terms of needing new employees to handle this, and all of the paperwork they are going to have to maintain, etc. At the same time, the people who use those services will have a huge cost because of changing stationary, as well as changing all of their publicity information," he said. "The other half of the problem is one of privacy. A lot of small businesses who use this type of service work out of their homes, and it is inconvenient for [them] to use their home address as their business address, specifically women -- such as battered wives -- who may not want their ex-spouses to track them down."


Gamble said that the battered woman issue is something that should be addressed by Congress and their privacy act.
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