My 13-Ounce Dilemma

If there’s logic in the Postal Service’s madness, it evades me.

This is a story about Mother’s Day… sort of.

My wife Helaine, herself a mother, bought a nice gift for my mom, wrapped it and took the package (really a padded envelope) to our local Post Office where one of the clerks weighed it and affixed the postage. She didn’t mail it.

Helaine planned on mailing the gift when my folks returned from a vacation. That turned out to be Tuesday of last week, when she drove the envelope to the Post Office and dropped it in the box in the parking lot.

It was delivered the next day… back to us, with the sticker you see. Packages over 13 ounces, when mailed using stamps, must be physically presented to a clerk at the Post Office. Period. End of story.

It’s for security, the sticker said. In this post 9/11 world we’re not supposed to question security – but I will.

Here in Connecticut, more than most places, we understand what postal security means. This is where Ottilie Lundgren died. She was poisoned by anthrax that probably passed through the huge Wallingford mail distribution center where three million anthrax spores were later found and removed.

But if the Postal Service is worried about security, why in heaven’s name would they have my carrier bring it back to my house? If it was dangerous, it’s doubtful it would have the proper return address anyway. As I remember, the 2001 anthrax letters all had phony return addresses. The same was true when the Unabomber’s package exploded at Yale, less than a mile from where I’m writing this.

The whole process makes no sense to me. In fact, I’m so confused why the Postal Service is doing this, I asked them to comment.

The rule actually predates 9/11, going back to the mid-90s. The weight limit, recently lowered to 13-ounces, complies with the weight limits for Priority Mail.

In an email response response, Doug Bem from the US Postal Inspection Service included this all purpose line:

“Unfortunately I won’t be able to get into the specifics of those security issues because someone who could misuse that information might be a reader of your blog; all I can say is that the issues still exist today.”

I am not denying that.

All I’m asking is, why send it back to me? It’s either worrisome, and should be treated that way, or it’s not and can go to my mom’s house.

To a certain extent the Postal Service has their hands tied. They can’t open my mail to check what’s inside.

“(E)ven though we are the law enforcement and security officers of the Postal Service, we don’t have the right to open any First Class letter, Priority Mail or Express Mail package without explaining why to a federal judge, who would then give us a federal search warrant. It’s not practical to screen the 320 million or so pieces of those types of mail the Postal Service handles every day.”

So instead, they declare a one size fits all rule which treats all 13 ounce stamped packages as suspicious… and then they just wash their hands of them and drop them off at your house.

If 13-ounce packages pose a threat, dispose of them. If not, deliver them.

If there’s logic in the Postal Service’s madness, it evades me.

32 thoughts on “My 13-Ounce Dilemma”

  1. You raise a very good point. The justification for the rule, according to USPS, is “to keep the public, customers, employees and the U.S. Mail safe.”

    By returning it to you, they are handling the package exactly like any other piece of mail, except they are simply delivering it to the sender.

    If they truly want “to keep the public, customers, employees and the U.S. Mail safe” shouldn’t they hold it in a “safe area” at the post office and mail you a postal notice to come pick it up?

    Hypothetically, I wonder what would have happened if you had put your Mom’s address as the return address? Would they have returned it to that address, and therefore delivered it?

  2. There used to be a sticker on the mailbox as a reminder to go into the PO. Maybe packages can be given to a letter carrier? But the real good news overlooked here is that nothwithstanding all the silliness they returned it the very next day, enabling you to easily get it delivered on time. Do you know how many items I get every day with postmarks over a week old?

  3. I sympathize with the customer’s problem, but a couple of points:

    – The regulation was tightened at the behest of the airlines and the security agencies after 9/11- it wasn’t the postal service’s idea. It was the only way to get the airlines to carry mail again.

    – The fact that the mailpiece is returned to the sender isn’t illogical at all. It simply recognizes the fact that the probability of the piece actually being a bomb, however real, is infinitesimal. I’d rather get the piece back than have it destroyed. And I don’t know about you, but if I got a package “returned” to me that I hadn’t mailed in the first place, I’d probably call the cops (or the post office at the very least)- I certainly wouldn’t open it!

    – Given that the USPS doesn’t really have a choice about enforcing this rule, the only fault I can see on its part is that the window clerk didn’t tell your wife that she couldn’t drop it in a collection box. The collection box should also have had a sticker on it explaining the rule.

    – Last but not least, the fact is that millions of people use Priority Mail without a problem every day. Your experience, however annoying it was at the time, doesn’t indicate any fundamental flaw in the system.

  4. These regulations have nothing to do with 9/11 or anthrax. The 13-ounce rule went into effect in the 1990s due to the Unabomber.

  5. The current level of enforcement of the regulation has everything to do with 9/11. After 9/11 the USPS was prohibited from placing packages on the airlines even with the existing restrictions. It wasn’t until the restrictions were tightened, and the USPS strengthened its Aviation Security procedures that it was allowed to put mail on airliners again.

  6. Which is strange, in light of this from the Wall Street Journal:

    Air Cargo Still Largely Unchecked


    August 15, 2006

    Last week’s terror threat forced passengers to drop bottles of water and soda, tubes of toothpaste and hand lotion, and cans of hair spray and shaving cream into the trash before boarding jetliners. But unbeknownst to most passengers, airlines loaded aluminum containers filled with largely unchecked freight into the bellies of those same planes.

    Despite years of concern from critics who see it as an obvious weak link in the nation’s aviation-security net, little has been done to screen cargo because of daunting technical challenges and stiff industry resistance.

    “It’s one of the most disturbing issues out there,” says Robert Francis, an aviation-safety consultant and former vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

  7. Use UPS instead. Less BS. The USPS is simply trying to get you to unnecessarily use higher priced mail options to cover their ever increasing revenue shortfall. The customers will ultimately pay welfare to keep this dinosaur from the tar pits where it belongs.

  8. Yeah right use UPS. If you want something returned that actually is returned 5 streets away use the Brown menace.

  9. Mr. Fox,

    I believe your basic concern is why if your wife’s package was considered suspicious or dangerous was it returned with the carrier as a regular piece of mail.

    I agree, the explanations you are getting are not logical. But, to make it logical to you would require revealing information that would detract from postal security.

    Being intentionally vague, I will tell you that your package was returned through normal delivery channels only because it violated the 13 oz. rule, not because it was deemed suspicious, dangerous, or hazardous. If the package had been classified as those latter categories it would not be entered into mailstream.


  10. BTT If you would bother to back up your ststement you would find that priorty mail under 5 pounds is actually cheaper than UPS!!

  11. BFTS99,I you would take the time toi check your facts, you would find that priorty mail weighing under 5 # is actually cheaper than UPS, but some bigots don’t care about the facts!!!!!!!!!

  12. I think VaguelyPostal and the inspector who emailed you are overdoing the secrecy business here. The item was returned because it wasn’t accepted in accordance with the rules. It was returned to sender because, while it violated the rules, there was no indication that it actually was a hazardous item. The rule is only there to keep items off planes unless they’ve been accepted face to face. There isn’t anything secret or mysterious about how and why it was returned. You can certainly make an argument about whether the rule actually makes us any safer, but that isn’t up to the USPS- you’d need to talk to the TSA, the airlines, etc.

    As far as the safety of returning the item through the mail, it’s no different than the airline passenger who has a nail clipper in her carry on luggage. All that happens is that the nail clipper gets confiscated. The passenger doesn’t get bundled off to Guantanamo. Logically, if the person is a threat, she should be arrested. If she isn’t a threat, she should be allowed to keep her nail clipper. Like it or not, that’s not how it works, and it’s the same with the mail.

    By the way- your comment that you don’t have a postal scale kind of proves my point about how minor this issue is. You don’t have a scale because you don’t need one. When you mail a package you bring it to the PO, which would normally have satisfied the acceptance rule. The only problem here was the window clerk failing to tell your wife about the rule.

    Consider the fact that this rule has been in effect for 8 or 9 years, and you only became aware of its existence a week ago, and then only because of a simple mistake on the part of the window clerk.

    It still doesn’t strike me as a big deal, I’m afraid- more of an Andy Rooney style irritation.

  13. The entire idea is silly, as if an overworked window clerk is going to remember, a week later, who mailed a particular package–you know, the one that exploded at 35,000 feet, and was recovered from the ocean floor in good enough shape to be traced back to that particular clerk–well enough to give a useful description. And even an accurate description is likely to be useless if the mailer wears, say, a loose coat, a wig, and sunglasses.

    A clerk in Berkeley once correctly identified a customer as the Unabomber to her supervisor, as per SOP, but the FBI swears it never got the report that the supervisor swears was sent. So the Unabomber got to send a few more bombs through the mails. What makes anyone think this rule is going to help anything? It’s just more hassle for the customers and window clerks.

  14. Even more amusing… If you happen to visit a post office with an electronic postage machine, you can buy e-postage and drop your item in the box, up to 65 pounds, without any human interaction.

  15. Hey Geoff!

    Nice to see a little and Consumerist synergy. Forget WTNH, NOW you’ve hit the big time!

  16. The automated machines take pictures and record credit card numbers; still no problem with a slight disguise and a stolen card.

  17. Pardon this kludgey response. I am away from home today and only have my cellphone’s keyboard.

    The problem with this kind of security is, it is applied indiscriminately. Everyone acknowledges my mail is no threat, and there are a hundred other ways to cause trouble with a parcel. Casting a wary eye on me takes resources from real problems.

    If a previous commenter is right, the airlines demanded this while providng the kind of low bid security they did pre-9/11 and while accepting unscreened air freight every day.

    Anyway, I just wanted to thank you all for hitting my blog.

  18. I’m a rural mail carrier. Our training said the 13 oz. weight restriction came from the FAA, not the TSP or USPS. Supposedly, it’s all about keeping an untracable terrorist from bringing down a commercial airliner (USPS ships mail and parcels alongside checked luggage on passenger airlines). From what we were told, the weight limit will keep going down as the power of explosives goes up. One of our training videos showed an explosion inside one of the metal containers that the USPS ships parcels in, and claimed that the container could safely handle up to 13 oz. of any explosive material. Anyway, the idea isn’t to keep us mail carriers safe, it’s to make sure there is a way to track any parcel heavy enough to be a potential threat to a plane full of people. I’m sorry if the 13 oz. limit is sometimes an inconvenience, but please consider the alternatives.

  19. I am a letter carrier and we question that rule everytime they bring it up to us. We ask the same question as to why if it is so unsafe do WE have to carry it in our truck and return it to the sender. IF safety was the real issue then that would not occur. They have never been able to explain it to us either.

  20. Can anyone explain how authorities knowing who mailed a bomb will really stop a determined enemy from mailing them? I mean, bluntly, they’ve steered jets into building while inside them, which shows how much they care for what happens to them afterwards….

  21. Geoff Fox and others, buy a scale, they’re not that much money, then use click-n-ship, along with carrier pick-up — or not — as long as it’s metered or click-n-ship (but no stamps) it can be dropped in a colleciton box as those (metered & click-n-ship) are trackable of who sent.

  22. I find your confusion confusing. What the post office did is perfectly rational.

    Imagine, for example, if the risk is that such packages may contain a bomb. They could scan all such packages, but that’s expensive. So instead, they simply don’t accept them.

    They face a very easy choice here: accept all such packages and scan them at high cost, or refuse all such packages. Easy, policy is the first choice. Allowing such packages is a poor choice.

    But if someone does send one by mistake, they could either destroy it or scan it manually to reduce the risk. The former will massively inconvenience innocent customers and returning the package to the sender is enough of an inconvenience that people will likely follow the rule from them on. Returning the package is safe and provides good customer services.

    So their behavior is exactly what you’d rationally expect. I can’t see why you would be surprised.

  23. “I am a letter carrier and we question that rule everytime they bring it up to us. We ask the same question as to why if it is so unsafe do WE have to carry it in our truck and return it to the sender. IF safety was the real issue then that would not occur. They have never been able to explain it to us either.”

    Umm, a 5 pound bomb on a truck is not in any way comparable to a 5 pound bomb on a plane.

  24. “They face a very easy choice here: accept all such packages and scan them at high cost, or refuse all such packages. Easy, policy is the first choice. Allowing such packages is a poor choice.”

    Except that they accept such packages at the windows from effectively-anonymous customers, then refuse to allow carriers to pick them up from twenty-year customers on their routes.

  25. You’ll love hearing about how the Chamblee, Georgia, Post Office handles this rule! There are signs at every clerk’s station telling customers that they cannot just drop them at the counter, but they must take pre-paid packages around to the LOADING DOCK! Mind you, the loading dock is not attended, although sometimes I see workers nearby. We can’t drop the packages in a mailbox, and we can’t drop the packages at a counter inside the P.O., but we can drop them off at an unattended LOADING DOCK?! How is this safe???

  26. Bonnie,

    You are correct this is not a safe procedure! Tfact that you have readily identified this security flaw defeats the “security” intent. If the package bears “stamps only”, is over 13 ounces, and you take it to the back dock it should be returned because the custumer still has not personally given it to a Window Clerk. If the package has “any postage meter, electronic postage, or stamps with a postage meter or electonic postage affixed it will not get returned. The concept is simply if a postage meter or electronic meter is affixed thepost office can trce these to the actual mailer. If you take a package with stamps to Window clerk you must make personal contact and answer a few questions from the clerk. Both of these scenario’s increase the chance of the person mailing the package as being Identifiable which is something a you would try to avoid if you were doing something illegal. Not a perfect system but these standards are Codified regulatios set by the Dept. of Transportation and the USPS must comply. I find it disturbing that the Chamblee Post office in Georgia would set up such a system that would circumvent 13 ounce rule, the rule is in place for security reasons and I dont think they have any right to possible put myself or anyone else in harms way.

    1. what procedures does the window clerk do after receiving a mail piece weighting over 13 ounces and having stamps?

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