New federal regulations meant to stymie fraud involving commercial mailboxes instead have set off an outpouring of anger and confusion from box renters and rental stores.
The U.S. Postal Service's Washington office has been deluged by more than 600 complaints and questions since the rules took effect in late April.
The changes require box renters to provide two proofs of identification and address, including one with a photo.
By October, all mail received by renters also must have the initials PMB--for private mailbox--in the address, an addition designed to prevent unscrupulous operators from passing off mail drops as office suites or residences. The Postal Service can return mail not properly marked.
Home-business operators, who often use mail drops as their headquarters, are protesting the expense of reprinting business cards, stationery and other materials to include PMB.
"I am at my wit's end," said Judith Diana Winston, a photographer and author who sells her self-published book through her mailbox at Santa Monica Postal Services.
Because the mailing address printed inside the book jacket and on her order form does not include PMB, she may lose out on new and repeat business, she said. Reprinting the book would cost $12,000.
People who live in mobile homes or on boats are concerned about how they can supply the required proofs of address when they have no fixed abode--other than their mailboxes.
The backlash has been particularly strong in California, birthplace of the private mailbox industry and home to about a quarter of the nation's 8,400 mailbox stores.
After being swamped by calls from angry constituents, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), wrote to Postmaster General William Henderson last month, suggesting that businesses be allowed more time to comply if the changes would cause them economic hardship.
"A case-by-case hardship waiver process could address this problem without affecting the worthy goal of combating fraud," Waxman wrote.
Half a dozen members of Congress--including Rep. Tom Campbell (R-San Jose) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach)--have co-sponsored a resolution to reverse the new mailbox rules. The measure will be considered by the House Committee on Government Reform.
Postal officials are promising to use common sense in enforcing the rules, especially the deadline for adding the PMB listing to addresses.
"We're not trying to penalize anyone using these boxes for legitimate purposes," said Mike Spates, the Postal Service's manager of delivery. "We will be flexible."
The agency also has stepped up efforts to tutor local post office workers on the changes.
"They're getting quite a few questions they don't know how to answer," acknowledged Roy Gamble, the Postal Service's manager of delivery policies and programs.
The agency's satellite TV network, which pipes educational programming into post offices, recently had an hourlong show on the new mailbox rules, complete with call-in questions.
"A lot of the battle is just getting the information out there," Spates said. "We will work with people. We're not looking for excuses to send [mail] back."
Here are some of the most common queries and complaints fielded by the Postal Service, followed by the agency's responses:
Complaint: The PMB designation unfairly stigmatizes box renters and reduces their ability to compete with bigger businesses.
Response: PMB only specifies the addressee's' true identity and does not portray box renters in a negative (or positive) light. Using suite, apartment or other address designations misleads senders.
Complaint: The cost of reprinting stationery, brochures and business cards will put small companies out of business.
Response: The Postal Service recognizes box renters will incur expenses and the inconvenience of notifying correspondents of their address change. Therefore, the Postal Service is allowing box renters up to six months from April 26, 1999, to deplete existing stationery, to advise correspondents and to make any other changes.
Question: How does a box-rental store make its customers comply with the new address format?
Answer: During the application process, the store should inform customers of their responsibilities. If the customer refuses or fails to comply, the store should terminate the rental agreement.
Q: How will the Postal Service make rental stores comply will the new rules?
A: If a store is not in compliance, the local postal manager must notify the owner in writing of violations and give a reasonable amount of time to comply. If the store fails to comply, the local manager can stop mail delivery, after receiving approval from a higher-ranking postal official.
Q: Are credit cards, Social Security cards and birth certificates valid identification?
A: No. These items do not show an address and/or signature.
Q: How can people who live in motor homes or on boats meet the identification requirements?
A: The make, model, color, license plate number and state of registration of the motor home or boat would identify their permanent residence.
Q: How does a box-rental store verify addresses for out-of-state and international customers?
A: The customer must complete the rental form in front of a notary public, providing the identification required.
Q: What if Social Security checks routed to commercial mailboxes are not addressed properly?
A: The Social Security Administration will update its database to include PMB in addresses by the October deadline.
Q: Can anyone get the home address of a box renter?
A: Members of the general public can submit requests to the Postal Service for information listed in the rental form. But they can get the renter's home address only if it is listed on the form as the base for a business being run out of the box.