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What Special Mail Services Really Promise

July 07, 1986|S. J. DIAMOND

No tax refund yet? No cancelled check to the IRS? Maybe the forms got lost in the mail. They probably should have been sent registered, certified, express, or some other fancy way.

Who knew? It's decision enough to choose the Postal Service over all its new competitors, if only because there's always a nearby branch. Ordinary citizens--the Postal Service's most likely customers--can't also make such surprisingly complicated choices, often quickly and virtually without help.

First, few truly understand how these services work. Then, they've all heard stories of how they don't work at all--of presents arriving broken and insurance being denied, or "overnight" letters taking days, or special deliveries coming by regular carrier.

Indeed, special delivery, which seems to promise speedy, special messenger service up to 9 o'clock at night, may be neither speedy nor special. It's simply not available to rural addresses more than a mile from the post office. And when a special delivery letter reaches a receiving post office before the regular carrier goes out on rounds, it goes in the pack.

Express mail, also called "overnight" or "next day service," is supposed to speed both sending and delivery: if mailed by 5 p.m., it's guaranteed delivery to the addressee (well, "attempted delivery") by 3 p.m. next day. But it's not available in some small cities, and it, too, may go with the regular carrier.

Should Get Refund

Express mail is often criticized ("We used to presume two-day delivery when we used it," says one Los Angeles businessman), although the Postal Service claims that up to 96% of express mailings get there as promised. If not, the sending office "can look up the express mail number on a computer and tell you what happened," says Larry Dozier, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Post Office, at least as far as indicated by any signatures at the receiving end, and if it was delivered late, the customer should get a 100% refund.

Some say it's not easy; the Postal Service says it is. One Californian, whose brother in New Jersey got his express mailed present the day after his birthday, did present her receipt to her local post office, "actually expecting my money back. They said I needed proof it didn't arrive, and if I wanted them to contact New Jersey, I'd have to go to a main office in another part of town. It was too much trouble."

Postal insurance draws similar complaints about claims, which naturally require proof of value--failing purchase receipts, an appraisal. This is a problem for people who insure goods not recently bought, like old clothes. What's more, it's the sender who must make the claim and produce receipts--a complication when damaged goods are gifts. "The post office said I should send it back to the shipper to file a claim," says one man, whose sister sent him a bread board that arrived broken. "I wouldn't feel bad asking Sears, but I was embarrassed to tell my sister to go to more effort than the item cost in the beginning."

Don't Understand Rules

To some extent, these complainers just don't understand the rules, although the Postal Service publishes a little booklet summarizing its offerings. Many even misunderstand certified and registered mail-- two rather straightforward services, and the most commonly, if mistakenly, chosen by taxpayers.

Certified mail exists to show delivery , proving that someone got something-- a record that is kept in the receiving station (and can be sent automatically to customers who buy a "return receipt"). Only the customer has a record of the sending (his purchase receipt). In fact, if one wants only such proof of mailing, there are "certificates of mailing"-- simple receipts, which can be "endorsed" by one's post office for an extra fee.

(Actually, certified letters, certificates of mailing, or even post marks can only help settle questions of when something was mailed, but don't prove what was mailed. "They only show that you mailed an envelope to the IRS," says Internal Revenue Service spokesman Rob Giannangeli in Los Angeles. "They don't say what's in it.")

But contrary to popular notion, there's no special handing or security, as with registered mail. If insured mail covers things of provable value, registered mail covers the irreplaceable--original documents, one-of-a-kind certificates. Speedy, however, isn't guaranteed, because "everywhere that mail moves," says Dozier, "someone has to sign for it"--clerks, truck drivers, airport personnel on both ends.

Creates 'Paper Trail'

This creates a detailed "paper trail." By contrast, a certified or express mail letter that never arrives can only be "traced back through all the offices where it should have passed," says Dozier. Practically speaking, says one consumer, "this means that if it ever shows up, they'll let you know."

Again, consumers most complain about what happens when a special service doesn't work as promised. Indeed, warns the little consumer booklet, "there are specific procedures that must be followed in the filing of claims"--procedures that can be explained by Publication 122, "Customer Guide to Filing Indemnity Claims on Domestic Mail," or, with luck, by a local postal clerk.

This is somewhat offputting, but doesn't bother everyone. After all, shrugs one man, "Don't you expect some troubles dealing with a federal bureaucracy? It's almost a rhetorical question."

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