A reader whose mailbox is overflowing with unwanted catalogs and junk mail wants to know if there is a way to stop the flood.
Legally, yes. But as a practical matter, catalogs and other unwanted mailings are like dandelions. It takes some work to clear them away, and once you think you have stopped them, new mailings from other companies may begin filling the mailbox.
An individual's right not to receive unsolicited junk mail rests primarily on a federal postal statute that allows anyone to request that his name be removed from a mailing list. Direct mail marketers challenged the law in 1970, took their case to the Supreme Court, and lost.
Marketers and other senders of unsolicited mail do not have a constitutional right to send unwanted mail into someone's home, the court said. Although the postal statute referred to material that might be considered erotically arousing, the court interpreted the statute to apply to any unwanted advertising.
"In today's complex society we are inescapably captive audiences for many purposes, but a sufficient measure of individual autonomy must survive to permit every householder to exercise control over unwanted mail," Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote for a unanimous Supreme Court.
The responsibility for control — that is, making sure the mailer knows you don't want his advertisements or other unsolicited mail — rests with you, the householder.
The Maryland Office of the Attorney General offers suggestions for blocking junk mail. Suggestions include sending your name and address to the Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service at P.O. Box 643, Carmel, NY 10512. The DMA can take your name off many national mailing lists for five years.
An online private nonprofit organization, Catalog Choice, promises to work with more than 8,000 companies to process opt-outs for individuals who want their names removed from marketers' databases. Individuals can register on the website to opt out from specific magazines they do not want to receive. More information: www.catalogchoice.org.
The Attorney General's office suggests telling credit reporting agencies you do not want pre-approved offers of credit by calling 888-5OPTOUT (888-567-8688. However, the automated telephone answering system at that number demands the caller's Social Security number, which many individuals decline to make public.
Other suggestions from the Attorney General: use "opt out" policies of banks and credit card companies to prohibit sharing your personal information with other companies; contact magazines and charities you subscribe or donate to and tell them not to share your name and address with other businesses and charities; write "Refused — Return to Sender" on the unopened envelopes of junk mail that is stamped "Address Correction Requested" or "Returned Postage Guaranteed."
Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Reach her with questions or feedback at 410-840-2354 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times.