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What to Do with Mail That Is Not Yours

by Shannon Steinberg on Mar 15, 2024

Receiving mail addressed to a previous resident is a common headache for a lot of new homeowners. But while it might be tempting to simply throw it out, tossing mail into the trash could lead to serious legal consequences. U.S. Code § 1708 lays down strict penalties for destroying or tampering with mail, including steep fines and jail time. If you’re not sure what to do with mail that is not yours, the solution is simple and straightforward.

What to Do with Mail That is Not Addressed to You

Misdelivered letters are a fact of life. People write down the wrong address and your neighbor’s mail winds up in your mailbox instead of theirs. In most cases, you can resolve the problem by delivering the letter yourself and informing your neighbor of the mistake. For new homeowners, the problem is generally more frustrating.

If the owner has not updated their address, you could continue to receive unwanted mail for years: coupons, newsletters, catalogs, political flyers, charity solicitations, etc. To resolve the situation:

  • Mark “RETURN TO SENDER.” This instructs the mail carrier to return the mail to whoever sent it. You can also write “NOT AT THIS ADDRESS,” to let the sender know that the recipient has moved.
  • Cross Out the Barcode. Every piece of mail arrives with a barcode printed on the bottom of the envelope, which tells the sorting system where to send it. While this type of automation saves time, it also means mail carriers rarely examine the letters they handle. Under these circumstances, it’s possible a letter marked “RETURN TO SENDER” could get caught in a loop where it circulates back and forth between the post office and your mailbox. Crossing out the barcode renders the mail undeliverable, ensuring it will be taken out of circulation.
  • Contact Your Landlord. If you live in an apartment building, the previous tenant may have left a forwarding address with the landlord. If that’s the case, simply cross out your address, write the new address in its place, and stick the letter back in the mailbox.
  • Contact the Post Office. When all else fails, visit your local post office and ask to fill out a change of address form indicating the previous resident moved and left no forwarding address.

What Not to Do

Many important documents are sent through the mail. Letters often contain confidential information, such as legal, medical, financial, or personal data that could be used to steal their identity. In other cases, the mail may be used to send money, valuable property, or personal correspondence. For these reasons, the U.S. government takes mail tampering very seriously. Stealing, destroying, defacing, or interfering with the delivery of mail is a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison or a $10,000 fine. To avoid potential legal troubles, here’s what not to do with mail that isn’t yours.

  • Throw It Away. Tossing someone else’s mail into the trash is tantamount to stealing it. You’re depriving the recipient of ever knowing what was inside.
  • Open the Letter. Knowingly opening someone else’s mail is a serious offense. Always do your best to return it in good condition. If you open the envelope without realizing it wasn’t yours, don’t panic. You aren’t liable in the event of an accident. Simply tape up the envelope and write “DELIVERED TO WRONG ADDRESS” on the front.
  • Cross Out the Recipient’s Name. The Post Office relies on accurate addresses in order to ensure people receive their mail. Crossing out the recipient’s name means they can’t determine who the letter was meant for. This is considered tampering and carries a heavy penalty.
  • Fill Out a Change of Address Form. It’s illegal to redirect mail to another address, so never request a change of address form for a previous resident without talking to the post office first. Only once they’re aware of the situation will you be allowed to fill out a form letting them know the recipient no longer lives at that address.

How to Update Your Mailing Address

If you’re receiving someone else’s mail, there’s also a chance someone else is receiving yours. To avoid perpetuating the cycle of misplaced correspondence, be sure to update your address with the U. S. Postal Service at least two weeks before you move. There are three ways to do so:

  1. Online: Log onto the USPS website and change your address online. The form is simple, but the Postal Service will charge a $1.00 fee to verify your identity.
  2. By Phone: Call 1-800-ASK-USPS and update your address over the phone. There is still a $1.00 fee, so have your payment information ready.
  3. In Person: Fill out Form 3575 (Mail Forwarding Change of Address Order) at your local post office. It may be less convenient, but fees are waived when you submit the form in person.

The Postal Service only keeps a record of your old address for six months. After that, it stops forwarding mail to your new home. Before that happens, make sure you’ve reached out to your contacts and informed them of your new address. This might include:

  • Utility Providers (Gas, Water, Electric, etc.)
  • Internet Provider
  • Healthcare Providers
  • Bank and Other Financial Institutions (e.g. Brokerage Firm)
  • Insurance Company
  • Phone Company
  • Employer
  • IRS
  • Children’s Schools
  • Alma Mater
  • Magazine Subscriptions
  • Friends and Family

Help Moving to Your New Home

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