Originally created 06/04/99

Post office restricts boxes



Business owners can no longer make small companies look big by using private rental mailboxes.

Rental boxes, like those found at Mail Boxes Etc., must now carry a private mail box or "PMB" address designation starting in October as part of a new U.S. Postal Service policy to crack down on mail fraud.

However, the new rule angers some legitimate small business owners who rely on the rental boxes -- which have "suite" or other numbers tacked on to the rental store's street address -- to give their company a more "businesslike" physical address.

Take Augusta resident Bob Pearson: He and his wife own a Broad Street art gallery but also operate a commercial building maintenance company, Absolute Services, from their West Lake home.

Mr. Pearson uses the address of a private box at PostNet on Fury's Ferry Road to keep his home address off business cards, advertisements and other handouts.

He says the new PMB designation makes his company look like a fly-by-night operation.

"What it does to a small businessman is clearly mark you as operating out of a mailbox," he said.

In October, all mail bound for mailing-service stores must have PMB in the address or it will be returned to sender.

Business owners like Mr. Pearson will bear the cost of changing company letterhead and other stationery.

"I really sympathize with them," said PostNet owner Karen Chrjapin, who said a handful of her customers dislike the new rule.

Lisa Bazemore, owner of Mail Boxes Etc. in Augusta, said she has not heard any customer complaints.

"It's been real peaceful so far," she said, adding that few renters use the boxes for business purposes.

Augusta postal officials said they too have heard little grumbling, despite the new rule carrying more stringent application requirements.

The application, which renters must complete to get delivery, requires two forms of identification. Credit cards are no longer accepted as identification, said Carmel Bennett, a postal supervisor in the Martinez branch.

"Other than that, the form is pretty much the same," she said.

Mr. Pearson remains convinced the main reason the post office passed the rule is because it is worried about losing mail delivery revenue to companies offering private mailbox service.

"What kills me is they're making it look like they're protecting the public in some way," he said.

While postal officials and mail-service companies say the vast majority of private box renters are legitimate, they admit the anonymous nature of the boxes give criminals the perfect tool to perpetrate credit-card fraud and identity theft.

"I worked a recent scam where some people from San Diego set up a box in Atlanta by sending a fax," said Glenn Falkner, a U.S. Postal Inspector in Atlanta. "At the post office you would have to do it in person -- you'd have to at least be a warm body."

Problems caused by the small number of unscrupulous box renters have been enough to prompt some local companies, including National Mail Services and the Mail Room, to get out of the box rental business altogether.

"We've had some really bad experiences from people who have abused the service," said Mathew Thomas, manager of the Mail Room. "We had one customer go all over the place writing bad checks with our address on them."

Another new Postal Service rule is making things tougher on the mail-service stores: Stores are now prohibited from returning, on a postage-free basis, first-class mail addressed to a customer that has moved.

The mail-service companies must now forward the mail to the former customer with first-class postage for a six-month period.

Some companies have resorted to storing former customers' mail for a six-month period in order to return it free of charge.

Damon Cline covers business for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3486.