Thursday, December 6, 2012

Post office postscript

In this post of a few days ago, I briefly described an incident in which some of our mail went missing within the League City Post Office.  I'm going to expound on that here, because this incident concerns me greatly. 
First of all, let me clarify our situation by noting that we do not have one of these old-style individual mailboxes such as this one depicted in the cartoon above.  Every other section of Centerpointe has individual home delivery to their own mailboxes, but because of <insert long story that was not our developer's fault here>, Section 9 is the one portion of the entire subdivision that was forced to accept four of these things instead - two at each end of our section:
They are called "clusterboxes" (but sometimes you will hear them not-so-affectionately referred to as "clusterf*cks", a mis-use of an old military term, but an amusing one).

They are referred to somewhat disparagingly that way because many people do not like them - they want the white-picket-fence-style matching mailbox out in front of their home as was traditionally always done, and they often feel short-changed by having to go to a clusterbox instead.

Me, I love the clustery things because they provide a secure, locked, high-quality mail box that I did not have to install or pay for myself.  In this, the age of rampant identity theft, there is no way I would allow my mail to sit outside in a conventional unlocked box.  I'd have to install a locked box or get a PMB instead. 

Clusterbox image above screengrabbed from the Approved Cluster Mailboxes sales site.   
So, because I get clusterbox delivery, I automatically know for a fact that any mail delivery failures are the fault of the Post Office rather than originating via random third-party theft from an unguarded front-yard mailbox. 

As I explained on November 29, our situation boiled down to this: 

We received a peach slip from the League City USPS, informing us of the need to pick up our mail, which had exceeded the clusterbox volume.  In this other recent post, I talked about junk mail coming (quoth) "in successive vomitous waves" at this holiday time of year.  We were taken off guard by just how much junk mail has avalanched upon us within the past couple of weeks.  See, this is only our second holiday season at this address.  We started out here with a virgin address associated with a brand new house, and it took the address-sellers and the mass mailers some time to catch up with us.  We never faced anywhere near this magnitude of junk onslaught last year, so we didn't foresee it this year.  And the main drawback of clusterboxes is this:  They are tiny.  They don't hold nearly as much mail as a conventional standalone mailbox. 

Anyway, our box filled up unexpectedly and, lesson thusly learned, we went to the Post Office with peach slip in hand, only to be told that there was no mail there for us.   The only explanation they could offer my husband was that maybe our mail was accidentally returned-to-sender "early" - meaning, before the ten-day window on the peach slip was up.

But that was just speculation.  Nobody at the League City Post Office could find any record of what actually happened. 

I began contacting potential senders to confirm or deny that possibility, but there was no evidence that any mail had been returned to anyone.  So it allegedly wasn't at the Post Office, and it apparently was not returned either.  So where was it, and why?
Going this way?  Going that way?
My husband handled the filing of the formal complaint.  He went to the League City Post Office in person two times, with no results.  He then started with the USPS Houston area customer service channels, but didn't get anywhere with that either.  From overhearing his phone conversations, mostly what he seemed to receive was scolding for not having managed our junk mail avalanche in the way that the Post Office would prefer to see (i.e., this was an attempted deflection from what the Post Office might have done wrong, which was to violate its own peach slip procedure and/or lose our mail).  "What assurances can you give us that our mail was not stolen by someone inside the Post Office?" he asked the USPS service reps.  No comment seemed to be forthcoming on that one. 

As he seemed to be getting nowhere with customer service, he then filed a formal theft complaint.  And about two days after that, he got a communication informing him that our mail had re-appeared at the League City Post Office. 

I have no evidence of any intentional wrongdoing here - it may have simply been a case of the Post Office violating its own policies, and/or general disorganization and ineptitude, or some other situational failure. 

But here's what concerns me:  These circumstances would also constitute a very nice functional framework for identity theft.  Some mail goes missing, customer launches investigation, mail reappears, oopsie, no harm done.  But what if a customer could not address this kind of thing in a timely manner because of some overriding crisis in their lives (serious illness, death in the family, etc)?  Some mail goes missing, customer is distracted, customer doesn't notice until some time in the future when collection agencies come calling because a thief had extracted personal information from the missing mail and used it to forge new credit accounts. 

Think about it.  Someone could snatch a bit of mail and (patience being a virtue) first hold onto it for a while to confirm or deny if there's any fall-out stemming from this action.  The resulting decision tree could be made to work very much in the snatcher's favor: 
  • If the snatch does get noticed, produce the mail and claim an "oopsie", thus protecting the snatcher. 
  • If the snatch does not get noticed, sell the mail to a third-party identity thief for a tidy sum of money.  The resulting chain of culpability would be extremely difficult to trace, thus protecting the snatcher. 
Again, I have no evidence of any intentional wrongdoing by anyone in the Post Office with our situation here.  But a person has to be sensitive to the potential for this kind of thing, because identity theft has become like fire ants: increasingly difficult to out-wit.  We lived in Centerpointe only about 18 months before someone co-opted our mailing address for the purpose of writing hot checks - despite us having a virgin address!  The sophistication of the methods used to achieve identity theft continues to grow.  I myself have had three unrelated fraudulent uses of my identity thus far in my life.  A person has to take this kind of possibility seriously - for crying out loud, we live in a time when even District Attorneys occasionally get their identities stolen!

Anyway, watch your back where mail is concerned, or that "cluster" terminology might one day acquire deeper personal meaning for you.  And I'll have more to say about junk mail in a future post. 

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