Big Brother, er, the Post Office, doesn't agree with your definition of Media Mail

Lots of us are sick of going to the Post Office. Prices are up. The elimination of flat rates for a system of national zones has made affordable mailings expensive. And the clerks behind the counter are under orders to relentlessly up-sell us. My postal clerks no longer listen to me or exchange pleasantries. They try to get me to spring for insurance, shell out for confirmation, and opt for postage that costs me more but doesn't guarantee my items will reach their destination any quicker.

Surprise: In the face of declining value, lots of us are asking for the cheapest available mailing options now. In many cases, that's Media Mail. But the Post Office is policing packages to make sure everything with it qualifies.

More Americans are complaining that their Media Mail packages have been tampered with so postal workers can verify that what's inside qualifies. Some packages arrive with demands of postage due. Others arrive severely damaged, or worse, empty (guess you should have bought that insurance after all).

George Bush fought for years to grant federal law enforcement the right to open your mail without a warrant. But apparently the Postal Service can do it if it thinks you've stuck a thank-you note in with that Bible you're sending your aunt.
Media Mail, which used to be Book Rate, is described rather loosely on the Postal Service's page:

"Generally used for books (at least eight pages), film (16 mm or narrower), printed music, printed test materials, video and sound recordings, playscripts, printed educational charts, loose-leaf pages and binders consisting of medical information, and computer-readable media. Sound recordings may include incidental announcements of recordings and guides or scripts prepared solely for use with such recordings. Books may contain no advertising other than incidental announcements of other books."

That's the extent of our instructions. Unfortunately, the "generally" that kicks them off means that everything else is up for dispute. Posters on other forums are reporting that items will be opened and sent back to you if you so much as stick a quick note in there like "Thanks!", because then the Postal Service can call it a letter and hit you for the higher rate. And you won't get the money you paid for the Media Mail postage back, either. You end up paying twice to rectify the judgment.

Aside from the moral gray area of having a government agency snooping inside our mail, the limits of what qualifies is also gray. If you send someone a deck of cards, that's not valid. But if those cards have vitamin descriptions on them, it's medical, so it's fine. Huh? All paper, all printed, all the same size. But as posters on this tarot card forum have found, their paper products don't qualify.

Media with advertising isn't accepted, which I guess makes sense because otherwise, publishers would use it to send their catalogs and magazines.

But where do DVDs fall in that list? I'd say they could be a "video and sound" recording, but using the official information, your local postmaster could have grounds to argue. Video games have both video and sound, but some people are reporting they've been turned back, too. What if you mail a book inside a tin? Grey area. But you won't know until you send your package off into the wilds, or worse, if an envelope arrives damaged or the contents are lost.

I called the Postal Service's helpline to ask under what circumstances something was allowed to be opened by postal workers. I was told they could only open something "if they feel there's something in there that should not be mailed through the United States Postal Service." I asked if she meant only dangerous or illegal items. She said yes, that's the only case in which your mail can lawfully be opened.

Apologists say that the Post Office is going after people who abuse the system. Sure, some people do, and many of them are on eBay (another profit-mad outfit), so if you're bidding on something that is described as going out by Media Mail, make sure it qualifies first if you want to see it arrive.

But I'm more inclined to say it's the Post Office that's taking advantage. The Postal Service's volume has plummeted, making its financial hunger worse, and giving it every incentive to corner us into paying more. Certainly, by making its lowest-priced option so unappealing and so dangerous for the security of the items sent, it's encouraging more people to simply pay more for First Class postage to begin with.

Hey, Post Office. Can you please invent a new category? Let's call it "Cheap and Simple." Rev up the truck; I'll take that one.
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