Fighting junk mail, one envelope at a time

By | August 17, 2008

Do you get a lot of junk mail?  I mean the kind that arrives on paper through the able ministrations of the U.S. Postal Service, not the kind that arrives via email.  You know, mail-order catalogs, promotions from the phone company, requests for money from charities, that sort of thing.

Do you throw most of it away?

Do you know how bad for the environment it is?  Cutting down trees, manufacturing paper, manufacturing ink, printing junk, transporting it to its recipients, and disposing of or recycling it all add up to a huge waste.

Do you know what a time-waster it is?  Looking at each piece to decide whether it’s junk, opening the ones that fool you, and discarding it all may take only a few seconds per piece, but when you add up all those seconds, it comes out to quite a lot of wasted time!

I was once in the same boat.  Six days a week, my mailbox was flooded with junk, which far exceeded the useful stuff, and a day without any mail at all was simply unheard of.

But now, I go for weeks without seeing any junk, and our mail carrier is spared the walk up our porch stairs at least once a week.  Putting a stop to the junk isn’t rocket science.  It takes some effort, but it’s worth it.  And I’m going to tell you exactly how to do it.

Go to the Direct Marketing Association’s Mail Preference Service, right now, and register every member of your family to opt out of all junk.  The DMA’s Web site will try to talk you out of it, but don’t listen.  Tell the DMA’s members loud and clear to take their junk and shove it.

Alas, that’s not the end of it; if only it were that easy!  Many junkers don’t belong to the DMA.  Others think they’re allowed to junk you because you’ve done business with them before.  It’s harder to get rid of these; harder, but not impossible.

But hold on!  Before you do any more to eliminate the junk, wait 90 days after registering your family with the DMA MPS. It takes that long for your registration to kick in, and why should you waste time getting yourself removed from lists that you’ll be removed from automatically within a few months?  Go stick a reminder in your on-line calendar to start the next phase of the battle in three months, and include a link to this article so you know what to do when the time comes.

What to do, in a nutshell, is this: contact every single junker and tell them to remove you from their list.

You probably think that will be pretty time-consuming.  You’re right, it will be, at least at first.  You’ll go from a few seconds per junk piece to anywhere from a couple of minutes to half an hour.  However, in the end it will be worth it.

Over time the junk will slow to a trickle.  There will be days when you don’t receive a single piece of mail.  Your time investment will eventually pay off.

Furthermore, you’re not just doing this to save time — you’re also doing it to save the environment.  If you doubt that it’ll have a significant impact, save the junk you receive for a few months, and you’ll be convinced!

Here, in detail, is how you should proceed with each piece of junk you receive.  Read through the whole thing before you get started, so that you’re familiar with the entire process (in particular, the “Keeping Records” section is important).  It’s easier than it looks, and you’ll get the hang of it quickly.

If you decide to take on the junkers as I describe below, please send me email or post a comment and let me know how it goes!

Step 1: Triage

Have you already asked the junker to remove you from their list?  If not, then proceed to “Step 2: Request”.

Has it been long enough since you asked that they should have complied by now?  if not, then proceed to “Step 3: Return”.

Have you already escalated?  If not, then proceed to “Step 4: Escalate”.

Has it been long enough since you escalated that they should have complied by now?  If not, then proceed to “Step 3: Return”.

Have you already filed a complaint with the BBB?  If not, then proceed to “Step 5: Complain”.

If you’ve already filed a complaint with the BBB, then give up — this particular junker just isn’t going to listen.  Note: I’ve been telling junkers to leave me alone for almost a year, and I have not yet encountered a single junker who persisted after a BBB complaint.

Step 2: Request

The goal is to contact the junker and ask them to remove you from their mailing list, as quickly as possible and without costing you any money.  Here are the methods you can use, in order of preference:

  1. Prepaid return mail, if they enclosed a prepaid envelope in their mailing to you
  2. Email
  3. Web form
  4. Fax (if their fax number is toll-free or you don’t pay per minute for long distance)
  5. Phone (ditto)

Prepaid return mail

Sending back the junk in a prepaid return mail envelope is the least time-consuming method, because it does not require you to try to figure out how to contact the junker.  It is also the most satisfying, because it actually costs them money.  Therefore, if there is a prepaid return envelope, then write, “Remove me from your mailing list,” on every piece of paper in the junk, especially the ones with your name and address on it; stuff them all in the prepaid return envelope; seal it up; and drop it in the mail.

Email

If you’re lucky, the sender has included an email address somewhere in the junk.  If so, then just fire off an email message to that address.  Include the following:

  1. “Please remove me from your postal mailing list and do not give or sell my mailing address to anyone else.”
  2. Include your name and address exactly as it appears on the junk.
  3. If there’s a customer number or other obviously identifiable code which represents you, then include that as well.
  4. If there’s a string of random numbers and characters below or next to your address on the junk, then include that as well.
  5. “Please do not add my email address to any bulk email lists as a result of this message.”  Yes, you really have to say this.  Yes, some obnoxious organizations will ignore it, and then you’ll have to deal with unsubscribing from their email spam.  If you are concerned about this, then consider using a free, throwaway email account from Yahoo, Hotmail, etc.  When the amount of spam being sent to that account gets to be too much, you can simply close it and create a new one.

If there’s no email address in the junk, then visit the sender’s Web site and try to find one there (the URL is usually included in the junk, but if not, you can Google for it).  Look on the home page, or on the “Contact Us”, “Customer Service” or “Privacy Policy” pages.

If you try to contact the junker using an email address they’ve provided, and it bounces, then proceed as if no email address was available, and mention the invalid address when you complain using a different method.

Web form

If, rather than providing an email address, the sender provides a form on their Web site for you to fill out to contact them, go ahead and use it, providing the information listed above.

Fax

Look for a fax number on the junk or Web site.  Fax a short note to that number with the information listed above.  To save time, consider writing the information on a sticky note, sticking it to the junk in a way that leaves your name, address and customer codes visible, and faxing that instead of a note written completely from scratch.

Phone

Look for a phone number on the junk or Web site.

Complaining by phone is a last resort because it’s time-consuming and unlikely to work.  You’ll end up waiting on hold, getting bounced from person to person or from menu to menu, and having to spell your name and address slowly enough for the droid on the other end of the line to get it right.  In the end, there’s a good chance they’ll mess it up anyway.

If all else fails

If you can’t contact the junker using any of these methods, then proceed to “Step 5: Complain”.

Make sure you mention in your BBB complaint that you’ve been forced to go through the BBB because the sender provided no other way to contact them.

Step 3: Return

Whenever you receive junk mail with a prepaid return envelope, send it back as described above in “Prepaid return mail”.

As noted above, this can serve as your initial unsubscribe request to the junker, but you should do it for every single piece of junk you receive, even if you’ve already done it before, and even if you’re also going to contact the junker in some other way.

Indiscriminate junk mail exists because it is profitable.  If people like you and me do our part to make it less profitable, then we’re helping to eliminate it not just for us, but for everyone.  Sending back junk in its prepaid return envelope is therefore an easy, effective form of civil disobedience.

Step 4: Escalate

When you’ve already asked once for a junker to stop sending you junk, and you’ve waited long enough for the request to kick in (as long as they told you to wait, if they responded to your request, or six weeks otherwise), and you get another piece of junk from them, it’s time to escalate your request.

To do that, follow the procedure described above in “Step 2: Request”, with these changes:

  1. Use a different method of contacting them from the one you used before (unless the one you’ve already used is the only one available).
  2. Tell them that this is your second request, and give them the details of the last one (exactly how and when you last contacted them).
  3. Tell them how many mailings you’ve received since your first request, and when you received them.
  4. If you’ve been sending their mailings back in prepaid return envelopes with “please remove me” written on them, then tell them so.

Step 5: Complain

If you’ve asked the sender twice to remove you from their mailing list, and you’ve waited long enough for them to do so after both requests, then it’s time to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau through their complaint site.  Provide the information listed above in “Step 2: Request” and “Step 4: Escalate”, carefully documented all of your interaction with the junker — the dates of their mailings to you, and the dates and methods you’ve used to ask them to stop sending them.

Filing a BBB complaint requires knowing the junker’s address and phone number.  These will almost always be provided somewhere in the junk.  If not, you can find them on the Web site, or you can search the BBB’s database for the junker’s name or telephone number.

Every single junk complaint I have filed with the BBB has been successful at stopping the junk.

Keeping Records

Throughout this process, you should keep detailed records of your interactions with all the junkers.  The easiest way to do this is to keep a text file or spreadsheet on your desktop, and to update it each time you receive junk or take any of the steps described above.  If you’d like, you can use this spreadsheet.

There are several reasons why keeping detailed records is important:

  1. When you receive junk, you need to know whether you’ve complained to its junker before and whether it’s been long enough that they should have stopped junking you by now.
  2. For all of your complaints to the junker or BBB after the initial request, you need to be able to document your previous requests and exactly when you’ve received junk despite them.  This makes it clear that you are serious about stopping the junk and aren’t going to take no for an answer.
  3. If you’re anything like me, you will enjoy watching the frequency of junk go down drastically after you’ve been doing this for a few months.  It’ll be obvious from the daily contents of your mailbox, but you may also enjoy being able to precisely quantify it (and maybe even draw pretty graphs!).

Pretty graph

In October 2007, I started complaining about junk as described above.  Here’s the volume of junk I’ve received since then (with the partial month of October omitted):

The “humps” in December and April are due to the fact that charities do more mailings at those times of year because it’s when people are thinking about donating money to charity to save money on their taxes.

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13 thoughts on “Fighting junk mail, one envelope at a time

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  6. Packaging King

    Sounds like a pretty cool service. I’ve worked in the mailing list industry so I know about MPS & TPS (mailing preferrence service etc.) I guess we beed an Email preference service to stop the spam. Nice idea though.

    Reply
  7. Tim

    I happen to be one of the owners of MyJunkTree and as a new company I search the web to see if we are getting any visibility out there and I post n relevant Blogs.

    We launched the company because we were tired of all the junk mail we were receiving and we personally did not want to bounce all over the web to contact all the different companies to stop it all. First and foremost we wanted to let people choose what they wanted to let come to their home knowing that some people really do like some of the coupons and catalogs. So our clients choose what they want stopped.

    We also had to provide a service that is different than the other services out there, so here is what we offer:

    1. We have a database of over 1300 catalogs that you can choose to stop.
    2. We have over a 4000 charities/Non-Profits that you can stop solicitations from.
    3. Stop the delivery of the national phone directories.
    4. Stop the delivery of the weekly coupons.
    5. Stop the general credit card offers as well as the ones from your own major bank.
    6. Stop the miscellaneous junk mail from the data brokers.
    7. You can register on the National Do Not Call Registry from the website.
    8. You can order your no strings attached free annual credit report right from the website.
    9. We plant trees with every new membership.

    And, yes we are a paid service and yes you can do everything that we do for free, if you want to do all the research and spend the time contacting the companies yourself it can easily be done. We have just done all of the legwork for our clients and feel there is value in the service we provide. So check out MyJunkTree and make difference in your mailbox.

    Reply
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  9. jik Post author

    This would make a great article in a newspaper or magazine.

    It seems a bit long and esoteric for that, don’t you think? I doubt most people are going to be willing to go through the effort I described, even the ones who actually care about helping the environment.

    Reply
  10. jik Post author

    The Web site http://www.DoNotMail.org/ documents the effect of junk mail on the environment and has a petition you can sign to help encourage the government to create a Do Not Mail Registry similar to the Do Not Call Registry that they’ve already created (of course, if they do create a Do Not Mail Registry, they’ll probably fill it with loopholes like the Do Not Call Registry, thus greatly reducing its effectiveness.

    There’s a Web site at http://www.proquo.com/ which claims to help people get off of junk mail lists. I don’t know whether it’s actually effective, but it probably won’t hurt to try it. In some cases, they’ll submit the requests for you, but in others you have to print out, sign and mail a letter provided by the Web site. That, of course, costs you money, whereas the method I described in my blog entry is free.

    You might also want to read through http://www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs4-junk.htm and http://www.obviously.com/junkmail/.

    Reply
  11. jik Post author

    A novel idea, but no one would pay enough for this service to make it worth my time.

    On the other hand, there might be someone else out there whose time is less scarce than mine and who would be willing to do it for a small enough fee that people would be willing to pay for it.

    Reply
  12. Rhu

    I sense a business opportunity here…. We could each have a colorful “jik box” sitting beside the mail table to drop the stuff in as we’re sorting the mail, and once a week you could collect people’s junk mail and do this for them for a small fee.

    In fact, I have a great idea how you could publicize such a service!

    Reply

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