Aurorastevani’s Blog

Solution for Junk Mail

Posted on: April 19, 2010

Are you getting unsolicited mail that’s more trouble than it’s worth? Here are some things you can do that will give you more control of what comes into your home. I don’t know of anything you can do that will stop the influx immediately, short of moving and not telling anyone (including creditors, employer, insurers, old friends, and especially the Post Office). If you’re willing to start slow and spend some time on it, you can slowly cut down the amount of junk mail you get.

The first thing to realize is that there are several different sources of junk mail, and there are different things you have to do for each of them. There are some broad-band tools you can use to stop a lot of junk mail at once, but these miss some important categories. For the rest, until you figure out why you got a particular piece of mail, you can’t take the action that will prevent its recurrence. It’s important to realize that some companies maintain their own lists, while other companies buy the lists they mail to. In the first case, you have to talk to the company that is sending the mail, and in the second, you have to talk to whoever they bought your name from.

Some simple actions that may help a lot

One approach attempts to stop all the unsolicited mail at once. The good part of this approach is that it’s not much work, the drawback is that you may stop receiving some mail that you wanted, but were only getting as a side-effect of something else. There are several different organizations you can contact, including the Direct Marketing Association, an organization of direct mailers.  And a few companies that charge a fee for individually contacting companies that are sending you mail.
Among the companies that have their own lists are local merchants who like to send out periodic reminders, and the national firms that send out twice weekly piles of advertising to all postal patrons, The two big companies in this latter business are ADVO (“ShopWi$e”), and Harte Hanks (“Potpourri”).  You won’t be able to tell which pieces are coming from mailers who have you directly on their lists until you’ve reduced your junk mail to a level that makes it worthwhile to individually call the sources of the mail you get.
Val-Pak is another distributor. They send out envelopes filled with coupons. They have a web site at valpak.net, but the email addresses that are supposed to get you off (or on) their lists are currently bouncing. I’ll give a good pointer when it starts working.

Companies that sell lists

Dealing with re-sold lists is a long process. You have to find out who’s selling your name, and ask them to stop. There are two possible approaches to tracking down the companies that are selling your name. You can either ask the companies that are sending you the mail, or you can track the spread of your name and address.
If you’re not getting much junk mail, you can easily call the companies that sent you something and ask where they got your name. As long as you’re polite, the people in the direct mail department are quite willing to tell you this. Often they will tell you the names of the two or three places from whom they bought lists in the last month, and you can figure out which one knows about you. Other times if you read them the codes on the mailing label, they can tell you exactly who it was.
You can also head off the problem entirely by always telling organizations which you deal with through the mail that you don’t want them selling your name. You can do this with a note when you order something or send your dues, or you can send them a separate note or call their national office on the phone.

How Companies Get Your Address

Companies compile addresses for their direct marketing lists in a number of subtle ways, based on innocuous actions you may be taking without realizing the effects. The most common ways are simply by buying lists from catalog sales companies and magazing subscription lists. This is an important source of income to many magazine publishers, and mail-order sales companies.
Another big one is the use of the mail-in warranty registration cards. In most states, it is illegal to require you to send in the registration in order to be covered by the warranty. The companies provide the cards in order to collect names of interested consumers. To be fair, many companies do offer benefits for sending in the cards that may be worth the chance of additional junk mail. The toll-free complaint lines provided with consumer products are also harvested for the addresses of interested customers to advertise to.
It’s important to realize that any time you dial a toll-free number, the company you called automatically receives access to your phone number. With the advant of caller ID, many companies can get your number even if you are paying for the call. In most locations, there are ways to permanently or temporarily disable caller ID so the called party doesn’t learn your number. Businesses that deal with consumers can easily get reverse-lookup directories to get your address (and usually your name) from your phone number.
In most states, the Motor Vehicle Department sells address lists. These are particularly valuable, since they contain the addresses of nearly all adults in a state. Most companies you pay bills to–credit card companies, department stores, phone companies, etc.–also sell address lists.

How to track the spread of your name

If you’re getting a fair amount of junk mail, it’s probably easier to start by adding markers to the address used by correspondents you want to continue to receive mail from. A simple trick you can use is to modify your name in some way that you keep track of. When you receive something unsolicited in the mail, you check your list and see where they got your address.
I use different middle initials with different organizations, but you could also change how you spell your first or last name, or add an apartment number to your address (or add a superfluous letter to your already-numbered apartment). If you are dealing with a professional organization, you might add a title, or a department name.

Asking to be removed from a list

Once you’ve identified a particular company and want them to remove you from their list, (either the one they mail to directly, or the one they sell) there are a few common steps to take. Start by calling customer service and tell them you want to stop getting mail. Then follow up by keeping track of mail you get from them, or mail addressed to the name you only use with them.
When you call again in a few weeks or a month (depending on how long they said it would take), you want to be able to tell them what in particular you received, and when, so they can figure out which list they missed the first time. In all cases, be polite, don’t refer to “junk mail” unless the clerk wants to know why you care, and be persistent. If the person you are talking to doesn’t know what to do, ask to speak to their supervisor, and be willing to patiently explain your predicament again.

Tactics that won’t help

I assume that your objective is to receive less mail. You might also be interested in encouraging mailers to send junk mail less often. The following are tactics that won’t succeed at either of these goals, but (if you’re vindictive) might make you feel better.
Using Business Reply Envelopes to complain will usually not get the attention of the mailing company. If you attach them to a brick or overfill the envelope, the post office will discard them. If you send them back empty, or with a complaint about the catalogue you didn’t want, they’ll be discarded by the people who open the envelopes. The mail is usually opened by people who get paid by the hour, and aren’t asked to relay complaints or count the number of replies that didn’t contain orders.
Your use of the BRE will cost them money, but they’ll never notice it, so this won’t cause them to change the way they do business. (Unless the number of people sending empty BRE’s becomes a substantial fraction of the number sending orders. This might lower the effectiveness enough that they’d stop doing mail order. Not likely.)
If you want the company to pay attention, get in touch with their customer service people. Most of the time, the company never even saw your name, so they can’t do much to keep you from getting future ads. They buy lists from other companies, and those other companies are the ones you need to get in touch with. They might be interested if you were offended by their ad, but otherwise they’ll just point out that many people order merchandise from them in response to the mailing. If you want to stop getting the mail, find out who they buy names from, and get those people to stop selling your name.

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