Easing Restrictions on Deliveries to Postal Mailboxes Could Hurt Efforts to Keep Mail Safe

For Release

October 23, 2008

Allowing private courier services to deliver items into mailboxes could hamper efforts by the U.S. Postal Service to safeguard the nation's mail, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

Although the impact of such a change is likely to be moderate, it could diminish public safety and security by diluting the effectiveness of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, according to the report. These negative effects could be reduced depending on how much access to the mailbox was opened and whether only the major couriers or a range of different types of couriers were allowed to enter the postal market.

RAND researchers also found that there was only modest public support for such a change, with urban residents more likely to support the idea than residents in more rural areas.

"Allowing private companies to compete with the U.S. Postal Service could create benefits for some consumers, but it also raises concerns about how to adequately track and police crimes that happen through the mail," said Lois Davis, the study's lead author and a senior policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

The Mailbox Rule is a criminal statute passed by Congress in 1934 to protect Postal Service revenue after utilities and other companies began to distribute bills directly to consumers. While the statute does not make it illegal for non-Postal Service employees to deliver mail, it does make it a crime to deliver mail to a mailbox unless the item has postage.

RAND researchers were asked by the U.S. Postal Service to assess the security implications of relaxing the Mailbox Rule, including whether such an action would present a risk to carriers, couriers and customers.

Davis and her colleagues concluded that widening access to mailboxes could increase theft as more people would have access to the mailboxes, creating more opportunities for theft. Importantly, mail theft plays a role in many broader crimes -- including identity theft and the fraudulent use of stolen credit cards, pension checks or other payments.

Relaxing the Mailbox Rule would limit federal jurisdiction over deliveries diverted to private couriers and could raise the cost and complexity of investigations conducted by the Postal Inspection Service, which has jurisdiction only over crimes involving the U.S. mail, researchers found.

Postal Inspectors would need to confirm that any reported crime involved the U.S. Postal Service and not a private courier or individual; any mailbox surveillance would involve an expanded number of suspects; and there likely would be more jurisdictional issues to consider during each investigation.

While there are no specific proposals pending to relax the Mailbox Rule, the RAND report proposes a number of measures that should be considered as a part of any effort to change the rule. Those recommendations include:

  • Congress may want to establish national training standards for private couriers and identify what agency should be responsible for oversight and enforcement of those standards.
  • A national reporting system may be needed to allow the Postal Inspection Service and the U.S. Department of Justice to track mail crimes and crime involving private couriers.
  • Congress may want to expand statutes that define postal crimes as interfering with interstate commerce to provide a basis for prosecuting crimes involving any mail service. Congress also should decide which federal agency should appropriately investigate interstate crimes involving competing couriers.
  • Create public education and awareness campaigns to inform consumers about any changes made to the postal system. Such messages should be tailored to the needs of different populations, such as rural populations that may be more resistant to such a change.

Other authors of the study are Michael Pollard, Jeremiah Goulka, Katherine Mack, Russell Lundberg and Paul Steinberg. The study, "The Role of the United States Postal Service in Public Safety and Security: Implications of Relaxing the Mailbox Monopoly," is available at www.rand.org.

The project was conducted by the RAND Safety and Justice Program, which conducts public policy research on corrections, policing, public safety and occupational safety.

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