What to do about junk snail mail spam

Sep 8th, 2006   1:18 am

So, we’ve new laws on email spam, and a general consensus to try and reduce, or eradicate, the problem. What are we to do with junk snail mail spam? Well, Damien Mulley talks up a recent Indo piece which highlights an under-performing service by the IDMA to allow users logged out. He raises very valid points about how ineffective it is, but stops short of the bigger problem, in my opinion.

In August, I collected all junk mail. I had 132 pieces of junk mail delivered through our letter box. That’s enough to fill a 20 litre shredder bin!! If I thought that using the IDMA opt out system, I’d have signed up long ago. It doesn’t though. An Post have a bulk mailing service, whereby your leaflets are delivered to every address, in a given area, rather than having to address them individually. That made up for 84 pieces of junk mail I received in August. No, I don’t normally store all my junk mail in 2 piles, but last month I did, just as an experiment. The other 48 pieces of junk mail were flyers hand-delivered.

So, self regulation, by the IDMA, is not a workable system. Companies work around the the opted out address using a simple “The Resident” as the addressee. eircom are the only company that have sent me such a mailing (offering broadband, despite me being a customer of theirs already.. but at least they didn’t try and sell me ISDN again). The IDMA database only applies to member companies, so that rules out the less ethical companies. Finally the IDMA database takes weeks (and up to 3 months) to apply, and it’s not doable online. The intention is clearly to make it hard to opt out; clearly.

So what would work? Well I reckon a discrete standardised sticker on the letter box would do the trick. I keep meaning to stick a small “No unaddressed mail please”, or a bolder “Mail delivered to this letter box will incur a charge of €1 if not addressed to this householder”!! The former will likely be ignored by An Post, and casual leaflet delivery guys.

An Post postmen seem to have 2 different systems for delivering their bulk mail. One is to add it to the sorted piles (which involve a personal system of elastic bands for each sector; completely down to the postman him/herself. The second system is to just have sorted bundles of bulk mail (I get 2.7 pieces, on average, a day!), so that the postman can grab a bulk bundle and deliver to every house that he has other mail for. I’ve never had bulk mail delivered by An Post, without some regular addressed mail. The standardised sticker would require that all postmen use the latter system (as it’s not practical to lookup each address for a non-bulk-mail preference at the time of sorting).

So, now we have the standardised sticker, and it doesn’t require radical changes, or expense, on the part of the biggest bulk mail delivery company. It does mean reduced revenue for them, but such is life; that’s going to come about soon anyway. What of the casual local leaflet delivery guys? Well they’re likely to be paid pittens, or to be delivering for their own business. Either way, they won’t care too much for the little sticker on your letter box. That’s where legislation comes in. There’s no voluntary system that’s going to work, without some legislation. Set up a regulator that monitors companies that abuse the system, and fine them, if they consistently abuse it (i.e. a number of complaints). It can be a single-person operation set up in the Dept of Environment, for example. It doesn’t need to cost millions.

Strengthen that legislation a bit, to force companies to provide a free automated (email, web, phone, fax; their choice) opt out system. That rules our the “oh, you have to ring this UK number”, or “oh, Mary isn’t in today” type fob-off excuses. That system must provide a unique transaction ID to the customer (for following up subsequent abuses, by the regulator), and the opt out must become effective within 28 days (plenty of time for those who use mass mailing services).

A bit overkill? Well the local Chinese restaurant certainly loses out. Local businesses invariable have many choices for local advertising. It all costs money, sure, but that’s the reality of business. Successful local businesses will generally have word-of-mouth support. Local start-ups can pay for window space in the local shop. They could advertise in the local free paper, the local charity calendar, etc. Either way, good luck to your business, but I shouldn’t have to pay for your advertising, if I don’t want to.

So, who’s going to design the sticker?