Independent Agency Protects The Integrity Of Our Postal System

Despite dwindling snail mail and the closing of many post offices, the United States Postal Service (USPS) remains a vital agency for consumers. The mail is commonly used not only as a safe, secure way to pay bills and communicate with companies, but also to provide safety notices, send product warranties and recall notices, conduct the Census, submit voter registrations and distribute absentee ballots, deliver prescription drugs and receive communications from medical providers.

At the same time, prevalent public trust of the USPS unfortunately makes it a target for scammers. At Consumer Action, spreading the word about scams and fraud is an important part of our mission as a non-profit organization. Thankfully, consumers have a great cop on the beat to address fraud, waste and misconduct in the mail pipelines—the USPS Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

Scams and other frauds are increasing and becoming quite sophisticated. They exploit many avenues, including the internet, phones and, yes, the postal mail service. Here are a few mail scam examples: a promise you’ve won the lottery; deceptive automobile warranty offers; solicitations to sell you an unnecessary “certified” copy of the deed to your property; and personal appeals for money from people you do not know. Often, such mailings attempt to create a sense of urgency with deadlines for the offer only a few days away.

A pernicious scam using the mail was recently widely reported. Crooks send letters to people telling them they have won millions of dollars or other prizes. In order to claim the jackpot, they have to send hundreds or thousands of dollars back to the address on the envelope. Postal inspectors say they’ve taken steps to stop this scam, but warn that once money is sent, it’s almost impossible to recover.

Even cybercriminals and identity thieves turn to the mail to perpetrate their fraudulent activities. Filling out forwarding forms (meant to help people who are moving) can detour postal items into scammers’ hands. Such surreptitious forwarding of mail that may contain financial statements, Social Security notices, property tax bills, etc., can be a real haul for identity thieves, who use the information to set up accounts in victims’ names and go on spending sprees. The USPS has controls in place to catch fraudulent forwarding attempts, but consumers should be aware of this and report suspicious activity immediately.

Consumers can submit complaints to the Office of the Inspector General’s online hotline, a vital link between the OIG and Postal Service stakeholders. According to the OIG, the hotline receives complaints from consumers, postal employees and other stakeholders about scams and frauds using the postal mail; waste of funds or resources; and mail theft and other postal crimes committed by postal employees or contractors. They also encompass misconduct; violations of laws, rules, or regulations; and danger to public health and safety relating to Postal Service programs and policies, employees, and contractors.

Reporting scams and fraud has the potential to ferret out bad actors who are using the postal mail system to carry out their wrongdoings and protect others from falling victim to the same crimes. It alerts the OIG and the USPS of deceptive use of the mail.

Many people have a narrow view of what the USPS is doing for consumers. We want to highlight the work of this important agency as a frontline to stopping scams and frauds that use the mail to victimize consumers. Like most enforcement agencies, the OIG must pick its battles to stay within its budget. But unless postal stakeholders know where to complain about mail fraud and scams, as well as other criminal use of the mail, crucial information from public sentries will be missing. That’s why we consider the USPS Office of the Inspector General as a vital, if underappreciated, part of our postal system.

Linda Sherry is director of national priorities for Consumer Action, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization using advocacy and education to fight for strong consumer rights and policies that promote fairness and financial prosperity for underrepresented consumers nationwide.

Linda Sherry