Prevent deceptive mail from damaging the “mail moment”
James Thornton, CEO, MLA (Mailing Lists Asia) writes
for Mail & Express Review
James Thornton, CEO, MLA (Mailing Lists Asia)
Huge volumes of deceptive mail
The sheer volume of deceptive, misleading and fraudulent direct mail is escalating in international markets. It is hard enough dealing with spam and scam online. Deceptive mail poisons and contaminates the mail moment that households used to enjoy every day. Real “junk” is now rapidly taking over the postal experience in many countries.
We are not talking small numbers. I know a deceptive mailer (a nice guy personally) who drops on average 10m pieces of mail a month. Every responder receives an average of 117 pieces more mail over the ensuing three months because his or her name and address is then shared and reciprocated with many other similar mailers.
It is the older, and certainly the more naïve citizens who are the particular targets for the false promises purveyed by mail rubbish. These false promises all too often represent a form of hope for these people: this is the experience they believe they are buying when they respond.
The risk: all mail is seen as junk
But ordinary consumers and businessmen are also exposed to the same stuff. Even half-educated people can see through it, of course. What is so damaging to the postal industry is that the sheer scale of deceptive mail leads to a perception among many consumers that ANY offer received in the mail these days is junk. All offers are presumed ‘guilty’ in this respect until proved ‘innocent’!
Meanwhile response rates around the world to authentic direct mail, on which the long term future of the postal industry to some extent depends, continue to decline. In the circumstances, are you surprised?
By receiving, carrying and delivering deceptive mail the postal industry is colluding, knowingly or unknowingly, with mail fraud. Worse, it seems some leading international postal operators are willing to receive good revenue to accept and deliver such mail knowing full well the mailing pieces’ contents are deceptive or, even worse, actually fraudulent.
Some postal authorities are taking action
Most leading carriers of mail in Western nations certainly know the difference between deceptive mail and authentic mail. In fact, there are explicit laws in place in some countries, and penalties for violations.
For instance, the United States introduced The Deceptive Mail and Enforcement Act in 1999. This requires the USPS not to deliver mailings found to be deceptive and gives it the ability to impose civil penalties on an offender of up to $1m. If a stop order is issued the penalty can double for any subsequent violation.
Other postal administrations using the law to curtail deceptive mail within their domestic markets include Australia Post, Japan Post, New Zealand Post and Royal Mail in the UK. However, just about everywhere else it seems anything goes!
Before writing this article I contacted the UPU International Bureau about its current attitude towards mail fraud. I was told that “mail fraud and postal scams are indeed a very difficult issue which need to be addressed” which indicates that the UPU collectively is beginning to do things about this problem.
In fact, I’m told that the UPU’s Postal Security Group (PSG) has now partnered with the International Mass Marketing Fraud Working Group (IMMFWG), which is a multinational group of law enforcement agencies working to raise worldwide public awareness of fraud that occurs through the mail.
They have issued a guide which defines mail fraud as follows: “a scheme to obtain money or something of value by offering a product, service or investment opportunity which does not live up to its claim. Prosecutors must prove the claims were intentionally misrepresented and that the mail was used to carry out the scheme”.
The booklet cites prize draws, get-rich-quick schemes, and dodgy sweepstakes offers. (As an aside, I was recently offered participation in a totally transparent sweepstake, one which was in fact legal and not a fraud, where the chances of winning were described to me as 300m to one. Even for a legal offer these odds are certainly not grounds for hope!).
There are also charity frauds, medical frauds, insurance frauds, investment frauds, etc. The Guide is titled ‘THINK FRAUD!!’ and it seems to have been passed to postal administrations “for dissemination to customers and postal employees”.
The UPU and IMMFWG plan is to raise awareness of the mail fraud problem and to encourage national posts “to work with national enforcement authorities to identify fraud and then take the appropriate measures to solve the issue according to national laws”.
Well, these are certainly good intentions and there is no doubt at all that individual postal authorities and everyone concerned mean well.
Deceptive mailers avoid identification
But the problem is not that easy to nail down. Most of the individuals and business groups behind these schemes are not dummies. They are experienced and well advised. They know exactly what they are doing and their lawyers are paid high fees to tell them exactly what they need to know in order to continue to keep their marketing materials within the law.
Perhaps a more elusive factor is that the larger players absolutely avoid mailing domestically within any market where they have a presence. They choose to mail through large, well established postal administrations and operators with envelopes sealed so that their materials cannot be opened for inspection by receiving posts.
A good example of this is in Japan, where Japan Post has very strict laws against deceptive mail domestically but receives for delivery huge quantities of such mail every month from outside Japan. All of it is first class and therefore sealed against inspection.
It is well known in the direct marketing industry that there is a cartel of deceptive mailers operating in Japan, but all based outside the country, and who mail into Japan first class through leading postal operators in Asia and Europe.
As we have seen this approach technically prevents inspection, although sometimes such rules have been overcome in places like the USA where ‘the relative of a USPS employee’ has received the offending offer in the mail and passed it to the USPS for inspection!
The guilty mailers reciprocate responder names and addresses amongst themselves. The more fresh the responder names offered other mailers in the market the more fresh names are received by any one mailer in return. If a mailer does not have fresh names to offer it is unable to access the market.
In Australia there is a worthy group of well intentioned citizens who respond to dodgy offers as a matter of principle in order to have their names added to mailing lists to receive further dodgy offers from similar mailers which they then report to the authorities for legal action. This group (not such a small one) has been effective in curtailing deceptive mailers’ ability to direct market successfully into Australia.
However, deceptive mailings into that market from offshore still continue.
Also in Australia, the national DMA states clearly in its marketing guidelines that direct marketing (including direct mail) should be ‘fair, transparent and ethical’.
Most deceptive mailings are focused on larger countries where there are extensive, compatible responder lists available for rental or exchange, and that are accessible through certain international list brokers willing to handle this kind of lucrative business.
This leaves a lot of smaller countries where there is comparatively little deceptive mail activity because there are few compatible responder names available in the marketplace.
It would be a tragedy if deceptive mailers were allowed to extend their name trading and mailing activities into such markets while they represent still unspoiled virgin territory which may soon become accessible to authentic mailers.
There is a move under way to gather raw list data on a large scale across many of these unspoiled markets, especially those most responsive to direct marketing offers received from offshore. This list data will be accessible to authentic mailers ONLY.
No deceptive mailer will be allowed access to this data and no reason will be given to any deceptive mailer detailing exactly why its offer has been declined. There will be no need then to argue the finer points of national law country by country.
Access to this new fresh list data across many un-spoilt countries will be denied to deceptive mailers at source.
Restoring the mail moment
The more consumers and businessmen anywhere in the world have a good (and not a bad) experience opening the mail in the morning, the more they will respond to authentic direct mail in the future.
This would mean not only more frequent positive experiences for mail recipients but continuing (and hopefully growing) business for postal operators receiving, carrying and delivering the mail; and for everyone else involved worldwide in the authentic direct mail business.
If we allow fraudulent and deceptive mail to continue to proliferate, disgusting the sensibilities of ordinary citizens and preying on and exploiting the naivety of older ones, then there will be a continuing decline in response rates and in global direct mail business generally.
This will not only be sad, but may prove expensive for the international postal industry.
(This article was originally published in Mail and Express Review in March 2011. It is re-published here with authorization by James Thornton.)