Sixteen years ago today, on April 12 2007, USPS sold the first Forever Stamp. At the time, the cost of a single first class Forever Stamp was $0.41 - today it is $0.63 and will be raised yet again in July up to $0.66.
As the cost of Forever Stamps continues to increase, so do opportunities for bad actors to make a quick buck selling counterfeit postage to consumers who are trying to get relief from the price hikes.
Ross Marchand from the Taxpayers Protection Alliance recently pointed out that a rule change to help USPS deal with stamp fraud poses a double whammy for consumers - not only are they getting ripped off on fake postage, but their mail could be opened and confiscated too.
Agency officials are proposing to change the rules and allow the USPS to open and dispose of mail with counterfeit postage, rather than returning it to the sender. This misguided change would jeopardize consumer privacy without actually addressing the larger fraud issue. America’s mail carrier should return this bad idea to sender and embrace real reforms to end counterfeit postage.
Under the USPS’ proposed rule change, the Domestic Mail Manual would deem “counterfeit postage” as “undeliverable;” offending mail pieces “will be considered abandoned and disposed of at the discretion of the Postal Service.” The USPS would also have free rein to open this “abandoned” mail as it sees fit. While the idea is to respond brazenly to discourage counterfeit postage, the proposal does nothing for consumers eagerly awaiting their parcels.
In addition, far too much trust is placed in the hands of postal staff to look through Americans’ precious cargo without recourse.
In 2013, the New York Times homeland security correspondent Ron Dixon reported that the USPS was handing over information on mailpieces to law enforcement to spy on environmental groups. More recently, the agency has been caught spying on Americans’ social media accounts. In April 2021, Yahoo News reported that the service runs an investigation unit known as the Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP; since renamed the “Analytics Team”) that “involves having analysts trawl through social media sites to look for what the document describes as ‘inflammatory’ postings and then sharing that information across government agencies.”
It’s only natural to wonder whether information from opened “abandoned” mail will find its way to law enforcement and/or the “Analytics Team.” Wanton openings and seizures can also have political ramifications. NBC News reported that the USPS is facing legal scrutiny for “seizing shipments of Black Lives Matter masks intended to protect demonstrators from Covid-19 during protests following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd.” These (and other items) were seized because of the external physical characteristics of the parcels, leading to the possibility that agency employees will jump the gun and open packages based on the mere suspicion of counterfeit postage. That’s a lot of power in the hands of an agency with a track record of disregarding Americans’ privacy and political beliefs.
There are far better ways for the USPS to deal with the problem of counterfeit postage. Instead of opening the fraudulently sent mailpieces, the USPS can send them to the recipient’s post office and notify the recipient that they have “postage due” on their mail. This way, the recipient at least has a chance to accept their parcel and pay for the postage if they consider it valuable enough. The recipient could then at least try to recoup postage fees from the shady online sellers who broke the law.
More fundamentally, the agency can and must go after counterfeit postage offenders by fixing its investigative arm. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) has an expansive mandate and receives $500 million yearly in taxpayer money to secure the mail and sniff out fraud, but according to the inspector general, about a third of USPIS’ investigative activities “do not directly support protection of Postal Service assets, Postal Service employees, or the mail system.”
By properly targeting the USPIS’ activities, the USPS can finally get a grip on fake postage running rampant through the system. The USPS can rein in fraud while still delivering for the American people.
I absolutely agree the US Postal Inspection Service needs to do more to fight fake postage - and they can start with online marketplaces that allow these counterfeit stamps to proliferate.
It seems we always see a spike in fraudulent listings when price hikes are announced and the marketplaces do very little to stop it.
Officially, eBay says counterfeit stamps are "not allowed" and that Forever Stamps in particular can only be sold by "eligible" sellers.
Counterfeit stamps can't be sold on eBay, while collectible and replica stamps must follow our policy.
We want our members to buy with confidence, so we've created a set of guidelines for selling stamps.
What is the policy?
- Counterfeit stamps and equipment designed to make these items are not allowed
- Collectible stamps must include a picture of the actual item being sold and specify any alterations or flaws not seen in the photo
- For replica stamps, the listing’s title, description and photos must clearly state or show that the item is a replica
- Forever Stamps can be sold by eligible sellers only
However, eBay does not spell out what exactly those eligibility requirements are and it's clear that this policy is not enforced and is not effective at stopping fake postage on the site.
For example, just searching for Forever Stamps 100 Roll on eBay today brings up several very suspicious listings that are half off of what the normal price should be, listed on brand new zero feedback accounts, and use nearly identical description information - all of which should be giant red flags both to eBay and to consumers.
Speaking of flags, it looks like one way these fraudsters get around eBay's policy is by listing these stamps in the Home & Garden > Yard, Garden & Outdoor Living > Décor > Flags category instead of the stamps categories.
Buyers likely aren't paying attention to the category, they are just searching for Forever Stamps and click on the results they are shown, but eBay absolutely can and must recognize this as part of the pattern of fraudulent activity and proactively take steps to protect consumers.
It was reported in 2019 that eBay was the second largest USPS retail customer, coming in only after Amazon. While we don't know if eBay still occupies that number two spot today, it's a safe bet they are still very high up the list and continue to have a significant relationship with USPS.
If I were the US Postal Inspection Service, I'd be using that special status (and the significant financial benefits it confers) as leverage to hold eBay accountable and push for effective action to stop fake stamps being sold on the platform.