Jewish World Review August 17, 2002 / 29 Menachem-Av, 5763

Jeff Gelles
Consumer Watch

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Consumer Reports

I write dead people: Glut of mystery junk mail

By Jeff Gelles -- One of the best parts of my job is that I get regular feedback from readers with stories to tell, questions to ask, or solutions to offer for other consumers' problems. A recent column about mystery junk mail is a good case in point.

Remember Sara Bergstresser's story? She and her husband, a Methodist minister, have moved repeatedly since their daughters went to college and then married, the last one almost a dozen years ago.

Lately, though, the Eagleville, Pa., couple have begun getting junk mail addressed to both daughters - by their maiden names, and at an address where neither daughter ever lived.

The likely culprits are "data miners," companies that mix and merge databases and sell lists of potential customers or contributors to businesses and nonprofits.

Although these companies say they practice "data hygiene" - I'm not making that up - to scrub errors from their lists, it's obviously not a perfect process. Judging from my mail, I would say it may be more flawed than those who buy the lists realize.

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Consider the case of the Rev. Elsa Mintz, of Chester Springs, Pa., whose husband died in 1998. Mintz now gets mail for her husband's first wife, who died 15 years ago.

Again, it's not a matter of an old name and address that simply survive on outdated lists. It can't be, because after Mintz and her husband married in 1991, the couple moved to Virginia and Maryland before returning to Pennsylvania.

"My favorites are the ads for life insurance," Mintz writes. "I have a very understanding mail carrier who does not deliver it, but when there is a substitute I get mail for her almost every day. How much money is being spent every year sending mail to dead people?"

Deborah Leavy of Haverford Township, Pa., could ask a similar question. She gets junk mail for her husband's ex-wife more than 20 years after the couple were divorced, and also at an address where the ex never lived.

"Boy, do I get mad every time I see her mail," Leavy says.

Bobbie Portner used to get sad, not mad, over her own mystery mail. For catharsis, she turned to a little graveyard humor.

For several years after her father's death, Portner has received junk mail for him at her Northeast Philadelphia home, even though he never lived there. Finally, she returned a credit offer after filling in his current "address": Section J, Lot 66, Montefiore Cemetery, Jenkintown, PA. "I wonder if he's getting mail there," she jokes.

That's not the worst. Portner has even begun getting mail addressed to her mother, dead 26 years. "We just sit and laugh," she says.

If this is data hygiene, all I can add is: Pass the extra soap.

Betsy Teutsch, of Mount Airy, N.J., doesn't have mystery mail to ponder, but she wrote to offer an environmentally sensitive alternative to the grin-and-toss-it approach.

Teutsch says she drastically reduced her junk mail several years ago by taking the two steps my column outlined: opting out of prescreened offers for credit, and signing up for the Direct Marketing Association's do-not-mail list (see instructions below).

But she was still troubled, especially this time of year, by the volume of catalogs she got. Some companies even seemed to send repeats - with essentially the same merchandise - on a monthly or weekly basis.

Teutsch's solution: She calls each company she deals with and asks to be put on an infrequent catalog schedule.

"You can even ask them to set your account up so they don't send duplicate catalogs along with an order! They are happy to do this. Lands' End is a good example. Instead of an almost weekly catalog, we get them seasonally."

If Teutsch simply isn't interested, she calls and asks to be removed from their mailing lists. "I just stack catalogs by my phone and do this when I have a few dead minutes. It has made a huge difference. I get very little mail now! I imagine our postal carrier loves us."

It's a solution to consider for any mail that goes straight from your mailbox to the recycling pile. And it might even work for eliminating mail to deceased relatives or ex-spouses.

To opt out of prescreened offers for credit - "prescreened," because they're based on information from credit files - call 1-888-567-8688 and follow the instructions. Be warned that you'll have to provide personal information, including your Social Security number.

To sign up for the Direct Marketing Association's do-not-mail list, send a signed letter or postcard asking to be removed from direct-mail lists to Mail Preference Service, c/o DMA, Box 643, Carmel, N.Y. 10512-0643. Be sure to include your address and every variation of the spelling of your name and family members' names.

You can also register online, for a $5 fee, at But as Edward Kent of Southampton, Pa., pointed out, you'll pay the $5 for each name you want on the list.

Jeff Gelles writes the ConsumerWatch column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.


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