01 Mar 2002 Postal Security: A Modest Proposal
According to the entertaining website dumbcriminalacts.com, a 6 foot, 7 inch tall 500-pound man entered his local post office planning robbery. Although easily recognized because of his unusual stature, he approached the clerk, his next-door neighbor, and demanded money. When the woman refused he pulled out a cucumber and threatened her. He was arrested the same day.1
It’s unfortunate that not all criminals are dumb enough to identify themselves to their victims. If they were, we could catch them all in the act, and even eliminate terrorism.
But since we can’t, we should do the next best thing: use their smarts to help us defend ourselves against them.
How so? Take the recent anthrax attacks through the U.S. mail.
Whoever committed the anthrax murders knew to mail the anthrax letters anonymously. He didn’t affix postage using a postage meter, and he didn’t apply for a special bulk or discount pre-sorted mail permit. His mail was anonymous.
The infamous Unabomber did the same thing, killing and maiming with bombs mailed with anonymous postage stamps. Again, no postage meter indicia, no bulk mail permit numbers. Anonymous live stamps.
Right now, the U.S. Postal Service has a problem. Despite moving quickly after September 11 to irradiate and otherwise secure the mail, and asking the federal government for up to $5 billion extra2 for costs related to mail security, the post office still can’t guarantee that another anthrax or mail bomb attack won’t occur. The post office presently is in the unenviable position of needing to secure 200 billion pieces3 of mail a year without the funds or the facilities to do it.4
Modestly, I have a partial solution: First, the Postal Service should treat separately the anonymous (standard stamp) mail from the mail with postage bearing identifying characteristics (such as the I.D. number on postage meter indicias, or the I.D. code carried on bulk mail) in the mail stream, and focus its expensive security efforts on the anonymous mail.
After all, a criminal or terrorist smart enough to handle anthrax will be smart enough not to mail the stuff through a postage meter, right?
Second, provide marketplace incentives to encourage Americans to use postage methods that identify the sender. For example, the next time the post office raises the price of first class mail, it could raise it a bit less for “secure postage.” That is, mail sent through a postage meter or mailed with postage permits. For consumer convenience, this would include postage purchased at home through one’s own personal computer. The post office also could sell, at a discount, special “secure stamps” at its post offices. These secure stamps would be encoded with serial numbers, or perhaps markings identifying the location and date of purchase. The purchasers would be required to supply I.D., or perhaps they could be available for credit card purchase only. Should one of these special secure stamps be used to mail anthrax or a letter bomb, the post office would have a lead on the identity of the mailer.
Then, the post office could focus security measures mostly on unsecured mail, thereby saving themselves, taxpayers and consumers bundles of dough.
I can hear the complaints already from privacy advocates and stamp collectors. People should be allowed to send anonymous mail, they’ll say. And postage meter marks aren’t nearly as interesting as a stamp of historic art, as meaningful as one honoring the sacrifices of veterans or as fun as one commemorating vintage baseball heroes. But anonymous mail would be unaffected. Those who choose to send it simply would forgo a postage discount. Stamps would continue to exist.
In fact, imagine the boon to stamp collectors. One could not only save first edition plates of new stamps, but secure stamps purchased at certain dates and times, or by certain persons – such as stamps purchased by someone who later was elected President of the United States. It could start a whole new category of desirable collectives.
And, speaking of the President, this secure stamp idea could help the Secret Service swiftly identify threatening letters to the President.
Nice as that is, though, it’s a side issue. The main benefits of this idea are that it would help the post office secure the mail without bankrupting itself and it would give the public a financial incentive to send mail with secure postage. It also would increase public confidence in the mail, which is important to our economy.
Everybody wins. Except, maybe, really, really dumb criminals.
Amy Ridenour is President of The National Center for Public Policy Research.
1 “I’ll Get You With My Cucumber,” Dumb Criminal Acts website, downloaded from http://www.dumbcriminalacts.com/robberies9.shtml on February 28, 2002.
2 “Security of the Mail: Mail Security FAQs,” U.S. Postal Service website publication, downloaded from http://www.usps.com/news/2001/press/mailsecurity/allfaq.htm on February 28, 2002.
3 “Work-Hour Reductions Lead Efforts to Control Costs, While Revenues, Mail Volumes Decline,” press release number 02-003, U.S. Postal Service, Washington, DC,
January 8, 2002, downloaded from http://www.usps.com/news/2002/press/pr02_003.htm on February 28, 2002.
4 “Battling on Many Fronts and with Finances Worsening, USPS Remains Resolute,” USPSNewsbreak, U.S. Postal Service, Washington, DC, November 6, 2001, downloaded from http://www.usps.com/news/2001/press/pr01_1106finances.htm on February 28, 2002.