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The Boston Phoenix Take Back Your Mailbox!

How to stay afloat on a tide of junk mail

By Andy Hermann

APRIL 5, 1999:  It was the psychics who drove me over the edge, but the real problems started earlier, around Thanksgiving. That's when the steady trickle of glossy catalogues and improbable credit-card offers passing through my mail slot became a torrent. When the deluge finally subsided, I counted a grand total of 22 gift catalogues, seven credit-card offers, five sweepstakes guarantees ("Pack your bags, Andrew L. Hermann, your FREE CRUISE is waiting!!!"), four desperate pleas from worthy charities, and a partridge in a pear tree. Oh, wait, that was the cover of the Smith & Hawken catalogue. Make that 23 gift catalogues. My cat, for whom shredding paper is a passion, had acquired the glazed look and dilated pupils of a contented junkie. I, on the other hand, was sporting merely the glazed look of someone who's seen one too many luscious photos of ceramic turtledoves and shrink-wrapped fruit baskets.

I'm not the only one feeling overwhelmed. American households receive an average of 1169 direct-mail pieces each year, which adds up to a whopping 4 million tons of the stuff. According to Fifty Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth, we each end up spending eight months of our lives sorting through mail we didn't ask for. Despite all the hoopla about e-commerce and the approaching Paperless Society, the industry estimates that there will be 5.2 percent more mailings this year than last, a growth rate expected to continue until at least 2003.

I have to confess that I, like most consumers, have always been more concerned about junk mail as personal nuisance than as ecological crisis. After all, not only have I been spending more and more of my dinner hours with a fork in one hand and a letter opener in the other, but some of the stuff I've been receiving is almost too embarrassing to open. Who out there actually thought I might want a subscription to Maxim? Or (on the other end of the spectrum) that I would be tempted by the offerings from Paragon, a company whose catalogue features things like hummingbird refrigerator magnets and checkered housecoats and books titled Becoming a Grandmother?

Nevertheless, I was fully prepared to go on ignoring my junk mail -- until I started getting the psychic mailings a few months ago. Each came in a plain brown envelope bearing a company name -- the Good Fortune Unit, the Spiritual Mission Group, and others I'd probably be accused of making up. "Dear Andrew," read one: "We believe the next few days of your life will be filled with potential good fortune, and there may be unforeseen difficulties in your immediate future." (How's that for covering your bases?) All the mailings came from various addresses in Fort Lauderdale, which is apparently home to a whole colony of entrepreneurial psychics. Each urged me to call now and find out what my future held in store -- besides, presumably, more junk mail from Fort Lauderdale. I was soon drowning in the stuff, and my roommates, despite my insistence that I had no idea how I had gotten on such mailing lists, were beginning to avoid me.

Enough, I thought. It was time to take arms against a sea of window envelopes, and by opposing end it. Or at least to find out why the psychics and their tree-killing friends were sending me all this crap, and what I could do to make them stop.

Not surprisingly, the main reason we all get so much junk mail is that people respond to it. Direct mail is one of the most absurdly profitable marketing techniques of all time. According to a study by the Direct Marketing Association, a trade group for junk mailers and others, consumers spent $354 billion on direct-mail offers and catalogue purchases in 1998, while estimated industry costs for the same year added up to a paltry $39 billion. And the growth rate of mail-order continues to exceed that of traditional retail sales. Obviously, with such a huge return on investment, most companies will happily strafe you with catalogues and window envelopes if you bear even the slightest resemblance to their target consumer.

Because direct mail is such a profitable business, there is also great value attached to its basic unit of exchange: the mailing list. Companies buy and sell customer information the way Wall Street traders buy and sell stocks, gambling that a mailing list culled from one sector of the market might pay off somewhere else. A golfing catalogue, for example, might buy the subscriber list to Sailing World magazine; a credit-card company might search the public records for a list of new homeowners. Your name gets added to these lists every time you send in a warranty card, fill out a consumer survey, subscribe to a magazine, or donate to a charity. Accumulating databases of such customer information is big business; there's even a type of firm called a "list broker" that buys up mailing lists from magazines, nonprofits, catalogue companies, and the like, then resells them at market rates. (A standard magazine mailing list might fetch $80 or $100 per thousand names; a highly specialized list -- one that targets, say, airplane owners or retired professional athletes -- would go for twice that.)

Most companies, with the exception of credit agencies and other parts of the financial-services industry, can sell your name as often as they like, to whomever they like, without your knowledge or consent. And although the DMA and its member companies are fairly casual about revealing sales figures, they are extremely guarded about the process whereby such lists are disseminated (though they all denied doing business with psychic hotlines).

According to DMA representative Rebecca Lafaso, you can still track down the most profligate list sellers by calling junk mailers directly and asking where they got your name. When I tried this out for myself, the representative at Columbia House spent several minutes shuffling papers and repeating, "I know I had that information around here somewhere," until I finally told her to forget about it. At other companies, the responses were blunter: "I have no idea where we get our lists. All I can do is take you off this one."

Rather than depending on customer-service drones to keep track of where your name is going, you might be better off doing it yourself. This isn't as hard as it sounds.

John Grebe, a local activist who's made reducing junk mail something of a hobby, recommends using mnemonic devices. If Grebe is subscribing to Dirt Rider magazine, he explains, "I would give them a name like John D.R. Grebe . . . or John Drebe, spelled with a 'D' for Dirt Rider. I haven't pushed it to the limit," -- by subscribing as, say, John Playboy -- but "you can be pretty indiscriminate. Every name is worth money to them." Then, when you start getting junk mail addressed to that name, you'll know where the marketers found you.

How quickly are names disseminated via direct-mailing lists? Consider the story of the improbably named Piujukuluk Muckenhoupt. Piujukuluk -- "Kitty" to her friends -- is a cat, and therefore not an especially promising candidate for junk mail. But Kitty's owner, Meg, decided to register her new computer in Kitty's name. A few months later, Kitty started getting mail. "First she got a credit-card solicitation," Meg reports. Appropriately enough, the card being offered could be custom-printed to include a picture of your pet. Meg decided to apply for the card on Kitty's behalf, but Kitty was denied credit because she doesn't have a Social Security number. Later, Kitty was invited to a conference of the Association of Internet Professionals. She declined to attend -- she's not allowed out of the house, after all -- but the AIP offered her a free subscription to Wired magazine anyway. Meg decided to take the subscription, and Kitty has been quite pleased with the results. "Kitty likes magazines," Meg says. "She likes sitting on paper in general. We let her sit on Wired each month before we read it."

Tracking the vagaries of the direct-marketing industry might be fun, but it isn't likely to stem the tide of unwanted mail. To do that, the best strategy is to keep your name off as many mailing lists as possible. Here are some tips.

Consumer surveys, warranty cards, membership applications, and other lengthy questionnaires are highly prized sources of information among direct marketers because, in theory, they allow companies to target their sales efforts, a strategy known as niche marketing. Your best defense against such surveys is to avoid filling them out, but why be a spoilsport when you can be a subversive element instead? Go ahead and fill out that supermarket discount-card application -- just be sure to follow some simple guidelines when you do, and you, too, can be the world's most undesirable consumer.

The following advice comes from a New Hampshire-based marketing researcher who asked not to be identified. "First off," she says, "make yourself poor -- real poor. And make yourself white." This is because people of color, regardless of income, are often the focus of niche-marketing efforts, whereas white consumers as a rule are harder to target. "Don't have any credit cards. Don't have a computer. Don't own your own home. In fact, don't say you own anything. Don't have any kids, but do be married -- otherwise they'll send you that 'Great Expectations' bullshit. Do not be 18 to 24."

Another trick, says our anonymous insider, is to express consumer disloyalty wherever possible. For example, "if they ask how many times you've changed long-distance carriers, say, 'Constantly.' " And if they ask about education, say you've had tons, because uneducated consumers are considered the easiest marks. "If you've got a PhD, they're a lot harder pressed to figure out what to do with you."

"Actually," the marketing researcher confides, with more than a hint of glee, "what I prefer to do is fill them out randomly. Be under 18 with six children, have an income under $10,000 but own three homes. [If you] do something completely impossible . . . they won't be able to target you, and you'll fuck up their data."

In the nonprofit sector, predictability rather than randomness is a better bulwark again the junk-mail torrent. Another anonymous tipster, who works as a data analyst at a research and consulting group for nonprofits, recommends picking one or two worthy causes and sticking to them, rather than spreading your money around. Nonprofits, he explains, "won't sell the names that are worth a lot. . . . They tend to sell the iffy names a lot more frequently." This is because, if you only give five bucks a year to your favorite charity, you're barely covering the cost of processing your contribution -- and your name and address is worth more to them than you are. If you spend big, on the other hand, the charity won't want you to go spreading your money around, so it'll keep you for itself. (The data analyst cautions, however, against eliminating all your charitable mail, since nonprofits obtain as much as 98 percent of their individual donations from direct marketing. And some things are actually worse than junk mail: "Would you rather have a pledge drive on TV . . . or get a piece of mail?")

As much fun as all this sounds, your best bet is probably to contact our old friends at the Direct Marketing Association, who strive to make the world safe for junk mail but are also wise enough to realize that, in order to do so, it's best to give the folks who hate it most a wide berth. To that end, the DMA maintains a "suppression list" for consumers who want to eliminate most of their junk mail. Just write to them and they'll tell their members, who collect and track the consumer data upon which most mass mailings are based, to call off the hounds of junk. Many other businesses offer similar services (see "Whom to Contact," right).

Some companies just won't take the hint, though. The credit-card issuer First USA, for example, continued to send me about one piece of mail a week long after I canceled my First USA Visa card and made repeated requests by phone to be taken off their lists. For flagrant junk purveyors of this kind, you have only one recourse: revenge.

Billy Stern, a Montana resident who works on the Native Forest Network's campaign to reduce junk mail, overhears a lot of creative strategies for taking back your mailbox. One popular technique, he reports, is to tear up an entire mailing into little pieces, cram it into the postage-paid return envelope included in most junk solicitations, and send the whole package back. Or, if you really want to stick it to a particularly irksome marketer, look for a return-guarantee label somewhere in the mailing. You can take such a label, "paste it onto a box with something heavy in it, and mail it back to them . . . they're forced to pay for the charge," Stern explains. What should you put into the box? Dead flowers? A cinder block? "Anything would do the trick," says Stern, but his recommendation: a bunch of old junk mail.

Whether any of these techniques will actually reduce your flow of unwanted mail is a matter of opinion. The only sure way is writing to the DMA. I tried out some of the other methods for myself while researching this article, but the response I got from, for example, Winbook Computers, a laptop catalogue company, was fairly typical: "It may take one to two cycles before you stop receiving the catalogue," the Winbook rep admitted. "Our marketing department can be a little slow." So I won't know till well past my deadline whether my own efforts have paid off.

Bogus survey forms and postage-due boxes of dirt aside, most companies I contacted seemed fairly responsive to my requests to be "blacked out," as one credit-card company puts it. Billy Stern says this is a recent development and, he thinks, a sincere one. "A lot of them are starting to respond," he says. "I think more and more of them are recognizing that when a customer calls up or writes them a letter" asking to be taken off the mailing list, "it's not a customer -- it's somebody they have on their list that they really shouldn't . . . [and] to take the energy to get that person off their list, in the long term, saves them money."

Sometimes, however, it seems impossible to contact a company, especially one that is behind some direct-marketing scam to part you from your money ("Earn $10,000 a month working at home!!!"). This was the case with the people responsible for my growing pile of psychic-hotline solicitations. I tried calling the various 800 numbers listed in the mailings, but each one led only to a recording entreating me to call a 900 number where "one of our gifted psychics is waiting to hear from you!" Plus, each envelope had a different return address listed, and I didn't want to write a nasty letter to every single one. So what to do?

The solution, I finally discovered, lay in the company's Web site. Every commercial Web site address, or "domain name," is listed by Internic Software, a domain-name broker. If you go to Internic's Web site (http://www.internic.com) and type in the name of the site you're looking for, Internic's search engine will provide you with detailed contact information for the site, including the name and address of the company that registered it and the name and phone number of its administrative contact.

Psychicsolution.com, the Web site listed on several of my psychic mailings, turned out to belong to a company in Fort Lauderdale called Central Talk Management. The administrative contact was a guy by the name of Jeff Breidbond. I called the number listed for him and got through on my first try.

Mr. Breidbond seemed singularly unsurprised that I had tracked him down. He asked me to describe one of the "mail pieces" I had received so he could figure out which list I was on.

"Is it addressed to your name, or is it addressed to 'friend'?" he asked.

"To my name," I said.

"And how many mail pieces have you received so far?"

Mr. Breidbond's line of questioning continued for some time, as if he were a doctor and I were listing the symptoms of some exotic ailment. Finally he said, "Well, it looks like you probably only have one more card left. It should be like a love card. Have you received that one yet?"

"I don't believe so, no."

Mr. Breidbond assured me that I would receive no more than just this one last "mail piece," but that he would remove me from his mailing list just to make sure. When I pressed him on how his company had gotten my name in the first place, he explained, "Someone, when they placed a 900 phone call, would have provided your name at the time of speaking to a psychic. That's the only way we'd be able to have your name and address."

So there it is: one final practical joke you can play on both the junk mailers and someone you really, really dislike -- put the person's address on the mailing list of some totally inappropriate direct marketer. Get your hippie ex-housemate a trial issue of Forbes; put your boss on the mailing list for Frederick's of Hollywood, and give the marketer the work address. Or, as I suspect happened in my case, put your ex-boyfriend on a psychic-hotline list.

The psychics have indeed stopped sending me junk mail, but I have taken little comfort from this. The other junk continues to pour in, and as the disposable-income tchotchke catalogues and obscure radical-nonprofit solicitations and sweepstakes notifications pile up, I begin to wish some of the direct-marketing gurus behind this stuff really were psychic. Maybe then they could figure out that I'm not likely to order up any hummingbird refrigerator magnets next Christmas.

Whom to contact

Believe it or not, there are a few businesses out there that, if you send them your name and address, will actually help get you removed from direct-market mailing lists.

The Direct Marketing Association maintains the Mail Preference Service, a "suppression" list that goes out to all 4500 of its member companies, encouraging them to stop sending you junk mail. Currently the "vast majority" of the DMA's members use the Mail Preference Service, according DMA representative Amy Blankenship, and starting in July of this year, the DMA will require them to. To participate, send all variations of your name and home address to: DMA Mail Preference Service, Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008. The service is free. The suppression list is updated every five years, so be sure to write the DMA again periodically.

Credit issuers are among the few businesses legally required to honor your anti-junk-mail requests. To eliminate most of your unsolicited credit-card and insurance offers, write to: National Opt-Out Center, Box 97328, Jackson, MS 39288-7328, or call (888) 567-8688 (567-5OPT-OUT). This service will contact all the major credit bureaus to have your name removed from their lists.

There are far too many other purveyors of junk to list here, but two Web sites provide excellent information for those who want to contact list brokers, bulk mailers, sweepstakes marketers, and the other usual suspects: the Native Forest Network (http://nativeforest.org/
) and Ecofuture (http://www.ecofuture.org/

Andy Hermann is a freelance writer living in Somerville. He can be reached at hermann42@aol.com.

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