USPS Postage Question
August 23, 2010 8:53 PM   Subscribe

Why are my 42-cent USPS First Class stamped letters being delivered?

I just realized that for the past six months, at least, I've been using 42-cent stamps, instead of the now current rate of 44-cent. However, not one has been returned. Why? Aside from cheating the PO out of a few cents, I'm wondering if it would be safe to finish off the sheet (though it may take me many more months to do so.)

If it matters, these are commemorative "Edgar Allan Poe" stamps. And they clearly say 42-cents, they are not "forever" stamps.
posted by whiskeyspider to Law & Government (11 answers total)
Letters that are under-stamped are delivered rather than returned, and the recipient is asked to pay the shortage. (Typically, the recipient will receive an envelope from the carrier with the amount of shortage into which they can place the necessary change. If the shortage is very small, the carrier may just ignore it or pay it vimself.)
posted by goblinbox at 9:06 PM on August 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll definitely buy some 2-cent stamps. Ignore the question about whether it is safe to continue using them as is (I wondered if there was a grace period or some special consideration for commemorative stamps).

I'm more interested in why none of them have been returned.
posted by whiskeyspider at 9:17 PM on August 23, 2010

I used to do this all the time paying bills back in college. Hell if I was going to walk a mile and a half (uphill both ways, in the snow, barefoot) to the post office to get some lousy price change stamps just so I can pay my electric bill! I sent things with 39 cent stamps on them well into 2008 without any problem. Does that make me a bad American? Maybe. Does the fact that they were super hero stamps make it better? Hell yes it does.

If it's something important like a rent check or a birthday card, put a current stamp on it. But otherwise, I say do it for as long as you can.
posted by phunniemee at 9:17 PM on August 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do your stamps say "42 cents" or do they say "First Class"? The last time I bought stamps, mine were "First Class" and the point of that was that I didn't have to buy 2-cent stamps later when the prices went up. The stamps continue to work even though the price is higher now than it was when I bought them.

This is something the post office started doing three or four years ago.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:00 PM on August 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

The post office only sort of cares. If they notice and there is a shortfall of just a little but the envelope HAS a stamp, they will deliver it postage due. This means your recipient is making up the two cents. And may have to go to the post office to give two cents to someone in order to receive your letter. I've had to do this, it's a little annoying. Letters with no stamp at all get returned to sender.

I ask my post office about this sort of thing all the time. "Hey if I dropped a letter in the mail but it had the recipient address as the return address and my address as the main address and it had no stamp, would you "return" it to the person and would I have gotten a free letter delivery?" and the guy at the PO laughed and said "You could, maybe, but who would bother ripping off the post office?"

Some post offices are a little more eagle-eyed about this than others, is my general takeway from this.
posted by jessamyn at 10:19 PM on August 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

The phenomenon that Jessmyn points out is the reason why many pre-printed envelopes from companies sending bills or invoices will have the destination address in both fields. The PO doesn't have any information to go on except the one address.

I knew someone who used to use this short-change method to "stick it" to the people he owed money to. He stopped when several of his creditors started charging late fees because the extra "processing" time it took to send someone down to the post office meant that their checks crossed the finish line a little late.
posted by Golfhaus at 4:27 AM on August 24, 2010

A few years ago, I stuck a Father's Day card into the mail with no stamp at all. It arrived just fine (800 miles to home). We called it the Father's Day Miracle. Clearly things slip through the cracks or some kind postal worker wanted my greeting card to make it on time.
posted by parkerjackson at 5:02 AM on August 24, 2010

I have an acquaintance that buys those grab bags of used stamps for collectors for a buck or so, and then reuses the stamps. Every year I get a Christmas card with postage made up of 6-10 20+ year old stamps that were previously used. He's been doing this for at least 15 years or so. Maybe USPS just isn't checking that close these days.

BTW, this is not a recommendation to do the same thing :)
posted by COD at 5:32 AM on August 24, 2010

The last time I was at the post office, in addition to the packages I was sending, I had a couple of letters with "First Class" stamps on them.

The clerk actually looked up the stamps in a binder, declared them 41 cent stamps, and charged me the shortfall.

I can't tell you what to make of that, but it did happen.
posted by endless_forms at 6:55 AM on August 24, 2010

I can't recall the source, but I believe I read somewhere that the amount of time and effort to verify that every single article of mail is stamped correctly is too labor-intensive. Regular stamps have a UV coating which can be checked automatically -- however, not all stamps get the coating; for example, presort mail postage is not UV coated, prepaid return envelopes are just a white envelope with black ink on them, etc. So, it's difficult for them to reject based entirely on the automatic stamp reading scanners or optical scanners. Post offices spot-check as they have labor for it, but letting some slip through isn't worth the expense of monitoring it.

I also recall a story somewhere (boy, I'm full of verifiable data!) where somebody worked sorting mail at a sweepstakes where people had to mail in entries. Every so often a huge batch of entries from the same person would arrive, and rather than actual postage stamps they'd have things glued on like pictures of stamps cut out of magazines, Easter Seals, or just plain chunks of colored paper instead.
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:02 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

About 20 years ago, a couple of friends got into a larky contest to see who could successfully send the other a letter with the unlikeliest stamp. One started with a too-cheap stamp, the other responded with a canceled stamp, the other replied with a grocery-coupon stamp, etc, followed by easter seals, matchbook covers cut to size and finally an emptied cafe sugar-pack. It ended when someone sent a letter back stamped with a FULL sugar pack glued on the envelope.

Dunno if such antics would clog the USPS machinery nowadays.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 10:10 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

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