The other day, I got a invoice via text message, and started ranting about it not coming via email and wondering why it hadn’t come through the app I have installed for that business. It was really a matter of convenience and wanting it to go somewhere I would remember it when I had a moment to deal with it, but ultimately any of those avenues would come to me and only me. It made me think of what it could have meant if it had come in regular paper mail at various points in my life, of things that do show up in my mailbox, and of a story one of my readers shared with me about a conversation with their postal carrier. Turns out that even in the digital age, what comes in and out of your mailbox can say a lot about you, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
While you probably trust folks you live with, there are a number of reasons you might want to keep your mail private from them. Abusive relationships come to top of mind, but they aren’t the only ones where a little privacy from a partner, parent, or other family member might be wanted or needed, let alone if you’re rooming with a friend or mere acquaintance. Your reasons may even be well-intentioned, rooted in trying to put together a surprise for a loved one or to protect them from the stress of seeing mail from certain people or places. Besides, people in your household might not be the only ones to see your mail. Many of us have non-locking mailboxes. While neighbors and others rifling through your incoming mail before you get to it or your outgoing mail (and those checks you’re sending to places that don’t have online payment options) before it gets picked up may not seem common, it certainly happens – and is more of a danger if you are already being targeted, such as by a disgruntled ex-partner. There are also your delivery people to consider because they handle every piece of mail that comes to and from you, often noticing things whether or not they’re trying. Most are friendly and harmless, but not all of them, and even the kindest can inadvertently let slip something personal about you.
Bills and account statements might seem innocuous to some, but even without being opened, they can sometimes tell someone where you’ve been, where you might have money stashed away, or who you might be in debt to. The magazines or junk mail catalogs you get can tell a savvy person about your hobbies and interests – mostly harmless, unless someone is trying to use that information to gain your confidence and trust inappropriately. They and other mail you get can also reveal your professional interests. I get firearms industry mail, for example, and the reader who shared their story with me owns a business that their mail carrier asked them about one day. Neither of us hide those parts of our lives or need to, but is that true of everything you are involved in? Could that knowledge make you a target in somebody’s mind? The notification I mentioned at the beginning of this post was a medical bill (I’m fine). It didn’t reveal the nature of my diagnosis or treatment, but could the very fact I’d been to a particular facility or type of doctor be problematic at some time for some people? It might not be for you, and if not that’s wonderful, but I challenge you to imagine who it could be dangerous for so that you can have empathy for them and so you can recognize those circumstances if they come up for you or a loved one.
Outside of those more personal, targeted threats, the information in your regular mail can also make you susceptible to identity theft or simple invasions of privacy from folks who might not intend harm but are in a position to do so unthinkingly if not maliciously. You probably already know that credit card offers and other mail from your banking and credit institutions can contain more information than you might want others to have, including hints to your creditworthiness or borrowing power. These threats are compounded when your mail is delivered to somewhere you don’t actually live or receive mail. Beyond that, I suspect you don’t want the next resident of your home to receive your angry letters from the IRS or debt collectors, and that you might not want even the friendliest ex-partner to be able to peek into your current financial situation. At best and frankly most likely, recipients of unintended mail will return to sender, forward it on, or simply throw it out. However, they may open it – accidentally or not – and find out things that you don’t want them to know and could even, in a worst-case scenario, put you at risk for economic or even physical harm.
Fortunately, little effort is needed to avoid most or all of these potential issues, and the results of those efforts can make your life easier and more pleasant in other ways. The easiest place to start is to move various statements, advertisements from your favorite stores, and other similar mail to electronic delivery, as much as you can, and to pay as many bills as possible online or by sending off your outgoing mail through a secure drop. You can also unsubscribe and opt out from certain optional mail, by contacting the mailer, or by using the Consumer Credit Reporting Industry’s Opt-Out Program or services like Catalog Choice. It will reduce your junk mail anyway. If and when you move, make sure you change your address with anywhere that might send you something. Besides avoiding the bad things I’ve described, you’ll be reachable to get pleasant surprises in the mail and, not for nothing, having the right address with someone like your employer will mean your taxes should be withheld correctly. Finally, if your mail isn’t already delivered to a locked box that only you and your delivery person has access to, you might consider changing over to a PO box or installing a locking mailbox. When not much is needed to make yourself a little bit safer and improve your life a little bit more, it’s often worthwhile even if the odds are low that the potential downsides will actually occur and especially if there are some upsides from making those changes.