How nitpicky is the Post Office with regards to Media Mail?
March 4, 2010 11:31 PM   Subscribe

How does the Post Office confirm that media mail is actually media mail? I'm shipping four boxes of books from Los Angeles to Arlington. Each box contains a hodgepodge of hardback and paperback books. To keep everything from getting jumbled up, I've included either a bunched-up towel or canvas bags as filler material. Will the Post Office hold or return my boxes if they find out? Has this ever happened to you or someone you know?
posted by invisible ink to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: A few different things have happened to me or people I knew personally

- boxes were opened at the post office to confirm that they were media mail. If they were not, they arrive postage due for the extra fees
- boxes that get damaged during shipping, same thing
- I've been told they spot check, this has never happened to me personally

I'd be careful with the padding and make sure it looks like padding and not a way to pack more t-shirts.
posted by jessamyn at 11:44 PM on March 4, 2010

Should be fine. They are usually not too concerned with what you put in to fill out a box of books. As Jessamyn says, just make sure it looks like padding, not packing extra stuff.

I've used book bags and stuff like that to fill out book boxes plenty of times. I've never had them open or check my boxes. Of course, I'm usually mailing stuff when my post office is busy and there is a line, so they usually just want to keep things moving rather than worry about my boxes of books.
posted by gudrun at 11:57 PM on March 4, 2010

Best answer: I have been present when a post office worker - at the desk, taking the package for shipping - opened every one of a set of ten boxes marked book rate and dug around in them, removing the one or two non-book items that were wedged in there (sock, magazine, type of thing) and made a production of wagging his finger at my friend who was trying to ship these things. It seemed to me at the time that the guy was pretty clearly just a bully, so I don't think it's all that likely that you would run into someone of his stripe -- but it certainly can happen that they would open the package when you're sending it and make you take out every last non-book thing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:12 AM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: At my local post office you have to bring the box unsealed, show them the contents, and then seal it right there. So it might be worth a call to ask.
posted by xo at 4:36 AM on March 5, 2010

I've shipped a ton of stuff media mail -- and all I've done is write "Media Mail" on the package. The one and only time anyone every checked up on that, it was all verbal:

I'd handed the package to the clerk, and she saw the "media mail" written on it and eyeballed me. "This says media mail," she said.


"Is it media mail?"

"....What do you mean?"

"What's in this?"

I answered truthfully. "A book."

She nodded, satisfied, and processed it. No opening the package, nothing like that.

I should say, though, that I never used any additional packing when I've shipped media rate things; it was always just the books. Maybe cutting down the boxes or packing them really full would be the best way to avoid concerns rather than adding filler. Or just letting things rattle around inside a little-- books are pretty sturdy things.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:49 AM on March 5, 2010

I can't say that I've ever taken "media mail" to a counter... If I were interested in sending media mail - sending a coffee maker as media mail - I'd find a way to package it so it looks like some sort of media... and then print postage at the APC (the automated thing in the lobby) and drop the thing in the bin... fewer prying eyes and folks who live under the whip/whim of petty authority supervisors... not likely to be opened... though possible.

worst case... sent as "postage due" = not a big deal, just an "oops, so sorry" and pay what's owed.

Myself I've only sent books, cd's, etc media... but I'm sure that fraud abounds... generally if you wanna do something fraudulent, use online postage, online labels, drop in box... very very little oversight (I know from whence I speak on these issues... I work to try to improve these processes for this very agency... i.e., I beat my head against a wall for a living).

to print online labels, and use your own stamps or Automated Postage (lobby APC) - get the USPS app called "Shipping Assistant"

posted by Jiff_and_theChoosyMuthers at 5:57 AM on March 5, 2010

Our local post office seems to be not concerned so much with non-media stuff in the packages as (gasp) first class mail being snuck through. No letters, no notecards. Our Books To Prisoners program can write notes on the invoices that go with the books, but not on a separate piece of paper. Although I've only heard rumors of packages being opened and returned or charged extra.
The only time I know packages have been returned is when they were marked "Media Mail," the proper amount of postage was put on -- in postage stamps -- and they were dropped in a drop box on the street.

I send all my packages, and we're talking a lot of packages, using the kiosk in the lobby to print the postage, and dropping into the post office drop box.
posted by kestralwing at 6:22 AM on March 5, 2010

Granted, LA is going to be more strict and pain-in-the-assy than my pissant little backwater, but just lie. It worked for me just the other day. In my experience most postal workers want to do as little as possible with as little effort as possible. (This is not a dis. I wish I was a postal worker.)
posted by scratch at 6:23 AM on March 5, 2010

one of the most important things is to not have any actual correspondence in it. that is, you can send somebody a book (or crate of books) for their birthday via media mail, but there damn sure better not be a birthday card in it.

second what jessamyn said - do you have any less-valuable (merchandise-y or personal belonging-y) crap you could pad with, such as wadded newspaper, empty plastic grocery bags, etc?
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:55 AM on March 5, 2010

Correspondence and advertisements.

Don't use newspaper sheets or magazines as filler.
posted by muddgirl at 6:59 AM on March 5, 2010

No one's even given second thought to boxes I've sent as media mail. Not to say that it won't happen in transit, but I've never gotten a hard time at the post office.
posted by spamguy at 7:22 AM on March 5, 2010

EmpressCallipygos writes "Or just letting things rattle around inside a little-- books are pretty sturdy things."

Don't do this. While the books can probably take a little rough handling the box will be damaged by the books thudding around inside; potentially to the point where the box breaks spilling the contents all over.
posted by Mitheral at 7:24 AM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you have douchy workers at your local PO (which is, in my experience, an exception and not the rule, but yeah it happens), go to a location that has an Automated Postal Center . It's a thing that looks like a big blue ATM with a scale and a big metal package slot/door next to it. They mostly have them in big or high-volume Post Offices. They're very neat.

You can send Media Mail from it. There is always the chance that your packages might get inspected while in the mailstream — so I am in no way encouraging you to cheat! — but they are almost certainly not going to remove or get all postage-due on your ass over a few rags that are obviously "packaging materials" and not "contents."

Only trick with the APC is make sure the rotating metal package hatch next to the machine is open and unlocked (and you can turn / operate it) before you weigh and print postage for your package. The door is (according to PO employees I've talked to) supposed to be unlocked whenever the machine is turned on and the PO lobby is open, but several times I've gotten a package all ready to mail, only to find that someone latched the package hatch and it's thus impossible to actually drop the package off. Not the end of the world, but it's annoying to have to come back the next day.

The official standards for Media Mail are in the Domestic Mail Manual, Section 173. It does not say anything about loose-fill or other packaging filler materials (nor does anywhere else in the DMM, AFAICT).

Personally I always pack things in paper shreddings (the non-crosscut paper shredders make the best; it's like excelsior except made out of paper). No chance anyone is going to mistake that for package contents. Plus it's reusing what would otherwise be garbage.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:36 AM on March 5, 2010

For those of you who say you never take media mail boxes to the post office, how do you get the boxes delivered? Do you give them to your mail carrier when s/he comes to your house on rounds?
posted by lunasol at 7:37 AM on March 5, 2010

I worked for the Post Office during a desperate time in my life. The issue with media mail is that it is supposed to be just that. If you come in with a foot square box that weighs only 8 ounces, the clerk is going to be a little suspicious about the contents. If the clerks have just been lectured by management about the evils of media mail impostors, they're going to be extra vigilant until the next great evil is brought to their attention. The real way that most media mail abusers are caught is when their package breaks open due to poor packing and all of the duck statues and new gloves for grandma spill out. The alternatives are to send the package back to the sender, on to the recipient with postage due, or to the happy land of lost mail.

The attitude of the clerk can be a result of his/her general bad attitude, but it is more likely due to the last person who did a sloppy job of trying to beat the system or the manager who just finished a yell-fest on the subject. It's a crap shoot.
posted by Old Geezer at 8:29 AM on March 5, 2010

I moved, uh, let's just say a lot of boxes of books from CA ---> AK using media mail a while ago. 30? The post office in LA opened two or three at random just to see that I wasn't messing with them (I wasn't).

Then, two boxes got very damaged during shipping somewhere along the way and USPS reboxed them to make them shippable again. I had put old letters in to fill some spaces in one of them (in retrospect and upon preview here, probably the least smart filler to use), and got charged postage due on that one. Which was spendy.

I would bet that you are fine with a little something that is obviously padding, but there's a slight possibility that it gets opened and if it turns out you put all your extra socks in there you might get charged the full rate after the fact.
posted by charmedimsure at 8:31 AM on March 5, 2010

Best answer: They treat media mail pretty poorly. I sent two boxes of tightly-packed books at one point, and both of them apparently exploded during transit -- got pieces of a few of the books sent to me in a new box about 6 months later. Pack very well and don't send books that you love!
posted by miyabo at 8:35 AM on March 5, 2010

You can buy rolls of plaing brown grocery bag type paper - crumple that up and use as your filler material (or use paper grocery or liquor store bags if you already have those. I find that this is the lightest and sturdiest combo for sending medial mail.

When I send one book, I usually cut two pieces of cardboard slightly larger than the cover of the book. Then i tape them around the book so that the book is in a little 2 sided cardboard holding cell. Then I just wrap that in the brown paper and and take it to the post office to send Media Mail. I have never been questioned with this method. Cardboard is free and cheap at dumpsters in bulk clubs (like Cosco).

If shippin gmultiple books in a box - I use the brown paper as filler and I take the package to the post office unsealed and tape it shut while there, so they can see clearly that it is media mail.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:07 AM on March 5, 2010

Plastic shopping bags, of the kind that they're starting to phase out, is also good for padding and is media-mail safe.
posted by thebazilist at 9:41 AM on March 5, 2010

People mentiong sending something media rate from an APC: have you actually done this?
As far as I can tell, the one at my local post office does not offer it, but maybe I've missed the menu it's buried in.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 10:33 AM on March 5, 2010

Lentrohamsanin: “People mentiong sending something media rate from an APC: have you actually done this?

I would have sworn that I had, and that it was an option, but it seems lots of people online would disagree with me, and I'm not certain enough to want to disagree.

I had thought that the APC gave you a Media Mail option, as long as the package qualified (over 13oz, not in free USPS packaging, meets dimensional requirements), but only gave you the FCM option if it was under. But I could be wrong, I guess.

Although I've definitely sent Media Mail from an APC, it's possible that I just used it to print out a stamp of the correct value and stuck it on the front of the piece. This is totally legal and there's no reason why you can't do it — it's just that the APC won't calculate the postage for you. But if you have a scale at home (or if you're willing to use the APC to weigh the package and then use your iPhone or something to go online and get the Media Mail rate) then you can figure out the amount of postage required, get a stamp printed for that value, and stick it on. Just make sure it says Media Mail somewhere on the face.

(Semi-related Protip: If you know exactly how much postage you need, and you're shipping a number of packages, doing this is faster than using the APC's "wizard" step-by-step interface, even for mail types that it handles. Especially if you have multiple identical packages, since you can select a custom value and then a number of stamps. This is under the "buy stamps" option not the "mail a letter or package" option. I just found this out a few weeks ago and it floored me.)

Just as a final note, although it's legit to do this with "stamps" printed by the APC, it's not OK (due to the Unabomber rules), to do this with regular postage stamps. The APC gets some sort of exception from the stamped-package rule, I guess because the machine records your name off of your credit-card number when you use it to buy postage.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:01 PM on March 5, 2010

In my experience there is no media mail option on the APC so you'd have to do it as Kadin2048 suggested.
posted by haveanicesummer at 1:00 PM on March 5, 2010

with regard to the APC comment I'd made before... I wasn't very clear - sorry - I meant to use the postage portion of the APC but NOT the label portion... get or make the label using Shipping Assistant (or other similar option that doesn't print postage but makes labels with all sorts of services offered by USPS)... anyway, mostly I was just saying to get the actual postage amount printed on the APC... since you can buy "custom" amounts printed from it... if you know the rate based upon weight going in (print the label using S.A. with the amount printed right there on the label)... that help? you're not supposed to be allowed to drop it in the unit in many cases (many rules and reg's to cite/lookup/quote here - see D.M.M. Domestic Mail Manual) but you'll almost always be able to do this w/o any issues.

Good luck.
posted by Jiff_and_theChoosyMuthers at 2:02 PM on March 5, 2010

2nding the plastic bags. I have a friend who's done a lot of shipping using media mail. He uses crumpled plastic grocery bags as filler. It's much lighter than any thing else he's found and helps save on shipping. Tape the heck out of your boxes with packing tape, every edge, since they're going to get banged around and considering how heavy books can be, more prone to breaking.
posted by stray thoughts at 2:46 PM on March 5, 2010

Response by poster: Wow. Thanks everyone, for the very informative replies. My sense of paranoia was enough that I ripped open each box, and removed the bunched-up towels and canvas bags. Thanks for saving me from what would've been a major headache!
posted by invisible ink at 6:50 PM on March 5, 2010

If you have a letter to send to the same address, I'd mail it separately, as I was once asked if there was any correspondence in the box, to which I truthfully replied that no, there was not.

I inquired about media mail for the Mefi CD Swap - I mentioned only CDs, not what kind - and was told that media mail is only for educational items.
posted by IndigoRain at 6:52 PM on March 5, 2010

The USPS is not very fond of Media Mail, so they don't make it very easy to use. And Media Mail is not sealed against inspection. The clerk isn't being on a power trip when s/he opens Media Mail, it's their job.
posted by faceonmars at 10:59 PM on March 5, 2010

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