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Video: Unwanted mail: Tips to make it stop

TODAY contributor
updated 5/10/2007 10:08:05 AM ET 2007-05-10T14:08:05

Flyers, important looking envelopes, catalogs, glossy brochures, we've all had to dig through piles of them. Some call it "advertising" but a lot of people simply call it junk mail. So is there a way to stop it all? In part one of a special TODAY three part series called “Scam-Proof Your Life with Sid Kirchheimer,” the author who writes the Scam-Alert column for the A-A-R-P Bulletin has a few tips and tricks to make room in your mailbox.

Stop Unwanted Mail
The less access you provide to your name and address, the more secure you will be. Each year, more than three million Americans discover that false credit accounts have been opened in their name. Of these, at least 400,000 can be attributed to the theft of incoming mail. To reduce your risk of having your identity hijacked in this way—and to ease your loyal mail carrier’s back strain—try these tips to turn a tide of unwanted mail into a trickle.

*Pre-approved Credit Card and Insurance Offers: Call 888-567-8688 (888-5-OPT-OUT) from your home telephone; it will be checked against an address database. Or visit www.optoutprescreen.com/. Taking this simple step should halt what some experts believe is the most dangerous type of unwanted mail: pre-approved credit offers. Why dangerous? Because they can be easily pilfered from your mailbox—and almost as easily doctored to open new accounts in your name. To opt-out of these offers, you’ll be asked for your name, address, birth date, and Social Security number. Don’t worry; the source of these unsolicited mailings are lists sold to these marketers by the four credit-reporting bureaus: Equifax, Experian, TransUnion, and Innovis. You can opt out for five years or permanently, but you must follow the opt-out procedure for each adult member of your family.

If a child under age 13 is being mailed these offers, it could be a sign that identity theft has occurred, so you should immediately contact the credit-reporting bureaus listed below.

  • Equifax, P.O. Box 740256, Atlanta, Georgia  30374
  • Experian, P.O. Box 9532, Allen, Texas  75013
  • Innovis Consumer Assistance, P.O. Box 725, Columbus, Ohio  43216-0725
  • TransUnion, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, California  92834

Experian Consumer Services will also remove your name from non-credit offers—coupons, flyers and catalogues—that result from its lists. Call 402-458-5247 to opt out of these mail and telemarketing offers.

*List Brokers: Pooling information effortlessly gleaned from phone books, public records—including real-estate transactions, tax files, and birth certificates—and other sources, these companies prepare and sell mailing lists to all kinds of businesses. Write to each listed below, requesting that your name be removed from all of their mailing and telemarketing lists. Preprinted mailing labels to ease the task are available at http://www.fightidentitytheft.com/junkmail_labels.html

Metromail Corporation
List Maintenance
901 West Bond
Lincoln, Nebraska  68521

R.L. Polk & Co. / Name Deletion File
List Compilation Development
26955 Northwestern Highway
Southfield, Michigan  48034-4716

Database America
Compilation Department
470 Chestnut Ridge Road
Woodcliff, New Jersey  07677

Acxiom U.S. 
To request an opt-out form be mailed to you, call 877-774-2094 or complete the request at Acxiom U.S's website. You will then have to fill out another form and mail it back as well.

*Direct Marketing Association—The 5,200 member companies of this trade group use the telephone, mail, and the Internet to pitch their products directly to consumers, bypassing such intermediaries as traditional bricks-and-mortar retail outlets. The DMA regularly updates its list, but the companies it notifies to remove you may not be as prompt. Thus six months may pass before solicitations from all DMA members cease.

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*To stop receiving mailings from DMA members, go to www.dmaconsumers.org/cgi/offmailing. Please note, “consumers” is plural in the address. Alternately, you can access their Mail Preference Service via www.the-dma.org and click on the orange box that reads “remove my name from mailing lists.” Opting out will take your name off the lists of those companies with whom you do not already do business with. You can opt out online or by mail; there’s a $1 charge either way to verify your credit card or checkbook identity.

Mail your request directly to:
Mail Preference Service
Direct Marketing Association
P.O. Box 643
Carmel, New York 10512

Alternatively, if you only want to stop mailings from a particular company, contact those companies directly. If you do that and continue to get mail from those DMA members, complete the complaint form at www.dmaconsumers.org/consumers/complaintform.doc and mail to:

Direct Marketing Association
c/o Remove My Name
1615 L St. NW, Suite 1100
Washington, DC 20036      
 
*To reduce e-mail solicitations from DMA members at up to three e-mail addresses, visit www.the-dma.org/consumers/optoutform_emps.shtml.The service is free of charge, but you’ll need to confirm within 30 days your receipt of a notice sent to each e-mail address you submit.

*To remove the names of deceased loved ones from commercial marketing lists, visit www.ims-dm.com/cgi/ddnc.php and complete the form. There’s a $1 charge.

*Catalogues: If you’re getting swamped with catalogues—including those from companies you’ve never patronized—chances are it’s because at some time you made some purchase from some catalogue…or perhaps simply requested one. When either of those actions occurs, your name and address are very likely handed over to Abacus, an alliance of catalogue and publishing companies. Abacus members routinely swap customer information. To stop individual catalogues from reaching your home, contact the specific company in question. To stop en masse mailings, send an e-mail to optout@abacus-us.com or write to:

Abacus, Inc.
P.O. Box 1478
Broomfield, Colorado  80038

*“Resident” and “Occupant” Mailings: To fend off flyers offering various goods and services, contact: ADVO, Inc. You can remove your name and address by:

*Val-Pak: Packs arriving in a blue envelope can be stopped via a quick visit to www.coxtarget.com/mailsuppression/s/DisplayMailSuppressionForm. Other requests can be directed to the sender’s address printed on the envelope you receive. PennySaver and similar mailings can be stopped in much the same way by sending your request to the return address they list.

*Prizes and Sweepstakes:
Have you recently “won” a foreign lottery or a contest you didn’t enter? Trash the notification of the news: It’s nothing more than a bid to make you respond. In a minimal-damage scenario, your response to such a come-on will land you on a widely circulated “sucker” list. At worst, it can set you up for a scam. Neither Publishers Clearinghouse nor Readers Digest Sweepstakes rents out its list; both, however, offer to remove your name from their files upon request. To do so, contact:

Publishers Clearinghouse

  • Call:800-645-9242
  • Write:Consumer & Privacy Affairs Publishers Clearinghouse 382 Channel Drive Port Washington, New York 11050
  • E-mail: mailto:privacychoices@pchmail.com

Readers Digest Sweepstakes

  • Call: 800-310-6261 (800-735-4327 for hearing impaired)
  • Write: Reader's Digest P.O. Box 50005 Prescott, Arizona  86301-5005

*Charities: If you have donated to one, you’ll likely get mail from others. Not only do nonprofits often share their lists, but there’s no central opt-out for charity solicitations. One way to reduce this kind of mail: Ask any organization that you support not to sell or rent your name and address. Look for opt-out boxes on donation forms.

*Sexually Oriented Material: To stop sexually explicit material, ask for Form 1500 at your post office or print out and fill in the following form: www.usps.com/forms/_pdf/ps1500.pdf
There are companies that will do opt-out services for a fee. They include: 41pounds.org: http://www.41pounds.org/ and Private Citizen: www.private-citizen.com./

What else can you do?

  • Waive that warranty card. When you buy a new toaster, it’s easy to get burned long before the bread pops up. The source of the tsuris is the warranty card included in the packaging. “Warranty cards are primarily used by the product’s manufacturer to profile you,” explains California identity-theft attorney Mari Frank. “They will then sell that information to others, who in turn send you mailings for their own products and services. That’s why warranty cards so often ask you for your household income, how many kids you have, what your hobbies and interests are. But you should know that unscrupulous employees can easily get their hands on your warranty-card info, then use it to steal your identity.”
  • Your protection: Provided you keep the receipt, a product remains under warranty for the designated period whether you return the warranty card or not. If you unwisely choose to “register” your purchase with the manufacturer, submit the warranty card bearing nothing more than your name, address, and date of purchase. (If required, enclose a copy of your receipt.) In the same mailing, specify that your personal information is not to be distributed to others. There’s no need to answer any other questions.
  • Don’t snub those stuffers.The opt-out contacts above primarily deal with unsolicited mail and telephone calls from companies you have nothing to do with. But what about stopping the spread of your personal information from companies with which you already do business?
  • Your protection: Once a year, financial institutions are required to inform their customers how they use their personal information, and what opt-out rights those customers have. “The trick is that these notices often come in envelopes stuffed with other correspondence,” notes privacy expert Eric Gertler. “Because of this, many people unknowingly discard them.”

These notices sometimes provide a mailing address (or, more rarely, a phone number or a website address) that permits customers to stop their financial institutions from sharing their personal information with unaffiliated third parties. This is that rare offer you truly should not refuse: Taking them up on it may halt unwanted that originates from totally unsuspected sources. Even if you don’t take this step, you can always stop the spread of your personal information the good old-fashioned way: Contact your bank, credit-card issuer, or insurer and inform them you are opting out of sharing. Opting out stops a company from supplying your personal information to third-party firms, but that company can go right on furnishing the data to its subsidiaries or affiliates. Gertler, the former CEO of Privista—an identity-theft protection and credit-management company—cites the hypothetical example of a customer who banks with Citibank: “Even if you opt out, your information may be passed to any of Citibank’s affiliate companies, such as its credit-card division or its mortgage component.”


What doesn’t work
The U.S. Postal Service delivers—but don’t expect it to deliver you from the mountains of unsolicited mail it dumps on your doorstep. Direct-marketing mailings, which have increased by some five billion pieces since the National Do Not Call Registry went into effect in October 2003, generate billions of dollars in revenue for the USPS.

Maybe that’s why some seemingly obvious steps for refusing these mailings don’t really work. For instance: 

  • Writing “Return to Sender” or “Refused” on the envelopes of unsolicited letters and placing them in your outgoing mail will not remove you from the sender’s distribution list. The USPS does not forward third-class bulk mail; postal regulations require that it be discarded.
  • Placing unsolicited mail in a return envelope with postage due is another futile attempt to stop future mailings. In all likelihood, the United States Postal Service will simply return the envelope to you for the correct postage. If you omit your return address and the Post Office is unable to return it to the sender, the envelope will go to the USPS’s mail-recovery center.

Adapted from "Scam-Proof Your Life" by Sid Kirchheimer. Copyright © 2006 Sid Kirchheimer. Adapted by permission of AARP Books/Sterling. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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