View Full Version : Ettiquette/legality of opening someone elses mail
12-02-2001, 04:56 AM
The former owners of the house I live in have long since moved away, but we still regularly get mail for them. It's always been junk mail, so we tend to just toss it out, or let it sit for a while on the table, and then toss it out. This week, however, we receieved what is quite clearly an invitation to something - perhaps a wedding? This is personal mail, not junk mail.
I tried doing a search on the former owner's name, and actually found a couple of possibilities as to where they have moved, two of which are local from here. I plan on calling later today, but I'm curious as to what to do if I can't track them down by phone.
Is it legal for me to open the enveloppe with the intention of finding a return address and sending a message to the people who sent the invitation? I think it's the polite thing to do...I'd feel bad for whoever chose to invite this couple to their event, and not only does the couple not show up, they don't RSVP. I think I'd like to know why, and would appreciate getting notification that I have the wrong address.
I know that at the post office, dead mail gets opened in case there is anything in it that can be donated to charity...is that a legal thing applicable only to the post office? Can only postal workers open dead mail, which is kind of what this letter is, if I can't find the owner. I'd just return it as is, but there is no return address on the outside of the enveloppe.
In case this is a factor, I live in Canada.
12-02-2001, 05:42 AM
While opening it may seem reasonable as you are just trying to help, I think the proper thing to do is return it to the Post Office and let *them* do it.
12-02-2001, 09:43 AM
I'm Canadian but I don't know the Canadian laws on this, mnemosyne. I do know that there are a lot of laws governing the postal system and some very hefty penalties. Stealing mail or vandalizing (like burning a mail box) is going to get you some jail time. There is no way on earth I would open mail with a stamp on it that is addressed to a stranger and I warn you not to do it. It is almost certainly a criminal act.
The envelope may contain an invitation to a sexual fetish or cult gathering...or any other confidential information you can imagine. Or maybe it has tickets or an invitation to an event and you will be overcome with a desire to keep it for yourself (never underestimate the thieving inclinations of the generic teeming millions). Maybe the sender meant to put a cheque or a hundred dollar bill in the envelope but forgot to, and doesn't know it. There are a lot of reasons why the sender and sendee might get outraged and call the police when they discover the sanctity of the mail has been violated and a stranger has opened their private mail. Looking at it from a mail user's point of view, you would want heavy criminal sanctions in place to prevent anyone from tampering with your mail.
sailor's right. Your intentions are good but don't open it, it's not yours, scratch out your address and write "addressee unknown" on the envelope and throw it in a mailbox.
12-02-2001, 11:45 AM
I seriously didn't think of such extreme circumstances as that, but I did know that the laws were very very strict. I suppose I will just give it back to the post office if the people I try to call today aren't the intended recepients. I would just rally feel bad if the senders are awaiting a response, you know? "Those damn people, too rude to even RSVP" and it's all because they didn't actually get it.
I'll see what I can do by phone (or do you think I shouldn't even bother with that?) and otherwise send it back.
Duck Duck Goose
12-02-2001, 12:15 PM
Okay, the Straight Dope from the Better Half, who BTW is with the U.S Postal Service, so Y Canadian MMV.
"In 17 years at the Post Office, I have never heard of anybody being prosecuted for opening someone else's first-class mail, as long as you weren't also stealing it out of the mailbox or something."
His opinion is that the courteous, helpful thing to do is to go ahead and open it if you need to, and try to figure out where it goes or who it belongs to. He points out that if it's been longer than 18 months since the addressee lived at your address, the Post Office may not have a forwarding address on file anymore anyway, so it's just a Dead Letter. However, you are perfectly entitled to hand the thing back to your letter carrier, or take it down to the Post Office, and let them deal with it.
He points out that, legally, anything that arrives in your mailbox with your address on it belongs to you, even if it has someone else's name on it, whether it's "Occupant" or "Joe Blow".
It is almost certainly a criminal act.
I questioned the B.H. closely on this, and rack his brain though he did, he couldn't come up with any sort of information on anyone ever being prosecuted for opening someone else's first-class mail. I asked him, "If you're over at Ron's house across the street, and while he's in the john you spot an unopened letter addressed to him on his kitchen table, and you open it and read it, is that illegal?"
He says he's not sure, but he doesn't think so. He says what would be illegal would be if you took it out of Ron's mailbox, and then opened it and read it.
As someone who moves quite frequenty (every year or two), this situation is almost routine for me. Even after living somewhere for a year or so I will still get seemingly important mail (investment stuff, bank statements, professional organizations) for the previous tenants. This happens so much that I don't have the time or the inclination to hunt down the new address, so after the first couple months I just throw it away. I don't feel bad about it, because if the person isn't responsible enough to change his address with all businesses, it's not my fault.
Also, in the OP's case, you may want to consider that maybe the previous homeowners didn't WANT the people to know where they were moving, and hence didn't leave their new address!
Not your problem - toss it.
12-02-2001, 01:06 PM
No, I like your courteous approach. I can easily see how this could happen even when the previous resident had been dilligent about informing people of his address change.
I know when we got married, I was having to scrabble together a number of addresses, and as it happened I got a few old ones in there. Also, I know some people use online address searches (white pages) for finding addresses when they address books is incomplete, and these can be out of date too. Even by more than a year--I know from personal experience.
I appreciate that you're willing to make a few calls to try to track this person down.
We have a different problem--there is another gentleman with my husband's name here in town, and when people go to look him up online they often find us. Last year we got one of his Christmas cards, which was a real puzzle because the message congratulated him on his engagement. Obviously we didn't know until we opened it! Once we figured it out, we called him, and got to swap some stories about how we've run into each other's identities around town.
12-02-2001, 01:42 PM
When we get (non-junk) mail for the previous owner of our house, we just write "does not live here anymore" on it and stick it back in our mailbox. The mailman takes it away. I always assumed it went back to return address. Am I mistaken?
BTW...I think that it's very nice of you to try and track down the previous occupant. I hope someone does that for me someday if I ever need it.
Another option for you, if you want to be a really nice person, is to stick the wedding invite into a larger envelope, and first-class mail it back to the return address, explaining the situation.
12-02-2001, 03:14 PM
One thing which is totally legal to do, IIRC acceptable to the U.S. Post Office (in the sense that it is not one of those things which is a legal-but-offensive step resented by the people-who-must-comply-when-it's-done), and accomplishes the end you seek is to:
a) X through the mailing address
b) Write across the envelope words to the effect of "No longer at this address. Return to Sender" preferably with an arrow pointing to the return address
c) With black marker obliterate any barcoding below the delivery address or at the bottom of the envelope. (This is important since it signals the USPS auto-sorting machinery to route it to your address. Defacing the barcode means a human being in sortation will have to look at it and see your message, and he/she will then code in the return address on it.)
d) Stick it in your own mailbox for pickup (even if in the city) or a convenient outgoing mailbox.
I'm not sure whether Canadians, Aussies, Brits, Irish, et al. ought to do this in like circumstances.
12-02-2001, 03:29 PM
Letter carrier checking in.
Polycarp is totally right. Your letter carrier may have changed since you moved in and the new one, or substitutes, don't know that the Joneses, or whoever, DON'T live there with you. Since the policy is to attempt delivery, you get the letter. By giving the letter back to the carrier, they will then learn that you don't want the Joneses mail. Otherwise they will assume that Jones is a good name at your address and keep delivering stuff.
Do exactly what Polycarp said and the letter will be returned to sender, which is what should happen. The previous owners may well not want anything forwarded.
12-02-2001, 04:01 PM
That's what I would normally do, but there is no return address on the enveloppe. That's why I'd have to open it. This is the first time since May/June that we've received anything that wasnt junk mail, and so I think it's not so much a case of avoiding the senders as it is overlooking them in the address change. These people haven;t lived at this address for 5 years (at least). I haven't had the time to try and call the people in town. Later today, if I ever get the rest of my work done. :)
12-02-2001, 04:10 PM
With the anthrax situation I think the general advice was to not open mail w/o a return address.
12-02-2001, 06:11 PM
I would just rally feel bad if the senders are awaiting a response, you know? "Those damn people, too rude to even RSVP" and it's all because they didn't actually get it.
I wouldn't feel too bad about the senders. How much could they care about the response of people who they haven't talked to in 5 years (and thus didn't get the new address)?
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