Can I stop getting junk mail?


In its Nov. 26, 1990, edition, Time published a story about the 63.7 billion pieces of junk mail sent that year. Less than a decade earlier, just four billion pieces were sent.
In its Nov. 26, 1990, edition, Time published a story about the 63.7 billion pieces of junk mail sent that year. Less than a decade earlier, just four billion pieces were sent.
Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

So you're intensely interested in learning what kind of laundry detergent is on sale at your local dollar store. You enjoy comparing nuances among descriptions of the Happy Family dish from competing Chinese restaurants' menus. Pre-approved credit card offers and sweepstakes that intimate you may have already won make you feel like someone out there loves you -- even though sometimes they're addressed to "Occupant." Providentially, you need only hang around your mailbox for a spell, and all of these delights and more will find their way to you.

Not everyone would agree with your enthusiasm for what most people consider junk mail (also called direct mail). You may be aghast at the thought, but there are even people who would love to no longer receive unsolicited mail.

There was a time when people received mail only from people they knew or with whom they did business. While an occasional direct mail catalog may have found its way into the mailbox of a potential customer, in the late 19th century, sundry merchants Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck really began direct mail campaigns in earnest with their catalogs. This marketing idea gathered steam: In the 21st century, more than 62 billion pieces of junk mail are sent annually [source: Circle of Life Foundation].

This unwanted mail from businesses and nonprofit organizations is more than simply annoying: It's also destructive. All of that junk mail requires approximately 100 million trees and 28 billion gallons of water to be produced [source: University of Oregon]. Even worse, junk mail like prescreened credit card offers provide great opportunities for identity thieves to establish lines of credit in your name.

Clearly, there's ample reason for people to hate junk mail. And about as long as junk mail's existed, people have looked for ways to thwart it. But is it possible to stem the tide of unwanted mail? It certainly is. Find out how on the next page.

How to Stop the Madness of Junk Mail

All the junk mail you receive is the result of your personal information being sold to marketing firms.
All the junk mail you receive is the result of your personal information being sold to marketing firms.
James Keyser/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Your name and address actually have a monetary value associated with them. It's not worth much (perhaps a fraction of a cent) but when joined with thousands of other people's information, suddenly it's a valuable list. Direct marketing companies buy these lists from companies with whom you've conducted business. If you've ever ordered something from a catalog or applied for a credit card, you've provided your information to people who, in turn, sell that information to direct marketers.

Giving your personal information under some circumstances are worse than others. Responding to a sweepstakes can land you on a "sucker list," making you an above average target for marketers, since you've proven yourself gullible [source: MSNBC]. And filling out a warranty card isn't much better. Simply purchasing a product and keeping the receipt protects you under the manufacturer's warranty. Warranty cards are merely fishing expeditions by companies looking for beefed-up personal information (which explains why a maker of toaster ovens would be interested in what hobbies you enjoy).

If you've just realized that you've been suckered by marketing ploys, don't worry. With a little bit of effort, you can remove your name from the lists in circulation. And you can keep it off future lists by being more possessive of your information.

Contacting associations whose members are the people who mail you stuff you don't want is the best way to get your information off mailing lists. The direct marketing industry has professional organizations that also serve as touch points for consumers who don't want to receive mail from the groups' members any longer [source: KIRO]. You can also contact businesses that make their money generating lists and ask be removed. Even better, if you're the type who loves junk mail, you can actually do the opposite and opt to receive mail from organizations' members.

This is much the same with credit card and insurance offers. Lists are generated by credit reporting agencies who are allowed to sell your information to credit card companies. By law, they must also honor any request by a consumer to take them off credit offer lists for five years [source: FTC]. The major credit reporting bureaus maintain a central Web site for consumers to opt out of credit card offers through all bureaus at once. By contacting each bureau directly with a written request for your information to remain only in their possession, you can also keep them from providing your information to direct market groups, which can help slow the junk mail deluge.

There's a caveat to opting out of junk mail: To get your information out of circulation, you often have to provide it during the opt-out process. Groups that allow consumers to opt out of receiving junk mail may require them to register by filling out forms that ask for personal information like social security or credit card numbers. This is solely for verification; organizations that help you opt out don't sell information from opt-out requests. Some organizations do charge nominal processing fees, but such fees are advertised, not simply tacked onto your credit card without your knowledge. The fees are usually minor, and for anyone who truly hates junk mail, worth the money.

Ready to get started on the path toward a life uncluttered by junk mail? If so, move along to the next page and use the links provided (including a great article by consumer expert Sid Kirchheimer, which is lousy with helpful addresses, links and phone numbers). And for more information on consumer victimization and other related topics, visit the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Kurth, Joel and Shepardson, David. "FBI puts stop to spam king." The Detroit News. October 16, 2005. http://www.detnews.com/2005/technology/0510/16/B01-349738.htm
  • Rothenberg, Randall. "Mideast crisis threatens unlikely victim: junk mail." New York Times. January 9, 1991. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CEFDB1330F93AA35752C0A967958260
  • "How to stop getting junk mail." KIRO. January 10, 2008. http://www.kirotv.com/money/15023440/detail.html
  • "Junk mail." Circle of Life Foundation. 2003. http://www.circleoflifefoundation.org/education/sustainable/greening/junk_mail.pdf
  • "Junk mail and targeted direct mail marketing - there is a difference!" Current Comments. January 3, 1983. http://www.garfield.library.upenn.edu/essays/v6p001y1983.pdf
  • "Sick of a mailbox full of flyers and credit card offers?" Today Show. May 10, 2007. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/18530707/
  • "Spam celebrates silver jubilee." BBC. May 4, 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/2996319.stm
  • "Stop junk mail," University of Oregon. http://www.uoregon.edu/~recycle/events_topics_junkmail_text.htm
  • "Study: 95 percent of all e-mail sent in 2007 was spam." CNet News. December 12, 2007. http://news.cnet.com/8301-13505_3-9831556-16.html
  • "The CAN-SPAM Act: requirements for commercial emailers." U.S. Federal Trade Commission. April 2004. http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/buspubs/canspam.shtm