USPS Security Rule On 13-Ounce Packages Makes No Sense

Geoff’s wife tried to mail a padded envelope full of love to his mom for Mother’s Day, but the post office returned it to Geoff’s house the next day with the above label, which says the item could not be delivered due to “heightened security requirements.” That’s all well and good, but what Geoff wants to know is, if this envelope is potentially dangerous, why would you bring it to the person named on the return address?

By Geoff’s estimate (and ours), either it’s a huge flaw in their security plan, or the USPS doesn’t really believe in their own rules.

The whole process makes no sense to me. In fact, I’m so confused why the Postal Service is doing this, I asked them to comment.

The rule actually predates 9/11, going back to the mid-90s. The weight limit, recently lowered to 13-ounces, complies with the weight limits for Priority Mail.

In an email response response, Doug Bem from the US Postal Inspection Service included this all purpose line:

“Unfortunately I won’t be able to get into the specifics of those security issues because someone who could misuse that information might be a reader of your blog; all I can say is that the issues still exist today.”

When he posted this story on his blog, it got picked up by a USPS-related website and he received several comments from possible postal service insiders. This morning, someone calling himself “VaguelyPostal” (which is a troubling name in itself) wrote:

I believe your basic concern is why if your wife’s package was considered suspicious or dangerous was it returned with the carrier as a regular piece of mail.

I agree, the explanations you are getting are not logical. But, to make it logical to you would require revealing information that would detract from postal security.
Being intentionally vague, I will tell you that your package was returned through normal delivery channels only because it violated the 13 oz. rule, not because it was deemed suspicious, dangerous, or hazardous. If the package had been classified as those latter categories it would not be entered into mailstream.

So the final, vague summary seems to be: if you get an item returned to your address for violating security rules, odds are high the USPS doesn’t really think it’s dangerous, but rules are rules and they can’t accept it.

If you don’t have a scale at home, an unopened can of soda weighs between 13 and 14 ounces, so you can use that as a rough guide.

“My 13-Ounce Dilemma” [GeoffFox.com]

Comments

Edit Your Comment

  1. irfan says:

    that seems reasonable enough to me, they just need a better label.

  2. mantari says:

    The US Government has gone out of control in trying to protest us all from the Terrorist Boogeyman.

    Can I opt-out and live in an America with ever so slightly more risk, in exchange for tons more convenience?

  3. LosOsosdeChicago says:

    What kind of world do we live in where people expect the US Postal Service to abide by logic?

  4. homerjay says:

    @mantari: Don’t even think of trying to cancel your mail. Kramer tried that about 15 years ago and it only brought trouble.

  5. Fivetop says:

    Apparently the Post Office is taking a mother-hating cue from 178 House republicans who voted against a resolution “Celebrating the role of mothers in the United States and supporting the goals and ideals of Mother’s Day”

    Now that hate is spreading to the post office.

  6. scoobydoo says:

    Yet the exact same package can go with FedEx, UPS, DHL or any other carrier.

    Apparently only the USPS thinks it is in danger of terror attacks.

  7. irfan says:

    @scoobydoo: USPS will still deliver it, but not thru a mail drop box. You have to take it in to the post office yourself.

  8. uberbucket says:

    @Fivetop:
    Republican’s hate anything that is inherently anti-war.
    [en.wikipedia.org]

    Tons of screwy rules have surfaced at the USPS in the guise of improved security.

    There are even specific media restrictions. You are not allowed to mail copies of dvds, or cds. The USPS is enforcing MPAA and RIAA policies.

  9. WV.Hillbilly says:

    Defense of USPS as a hard working, inexpensive service that delivers anywhere, coming in… 5, 4, 3, 2 …

  10. timmus says:

    My theory (as a small business owner who ships a lot of priority mail daily) is that the post office is trying to increase revenue by forcing more people to come into the post office. Look around when you’re standing in line and all you see is special commemorative stamp displays, mailing supplies, Cat In The Hat movie tie-in promotions, and toy mail trucks. I don’t know who the USPS thinks it’s kidding being all alarmed about books in regular old 12 x 9″ envelopes being dropped in a mailbox.

  11. Dobernala says:

    Just go to one of those self-service kiosks and have the postage printed. If you do that, you can just drop it off in the mail slot and all is well.

    FWIW, I’ve mailed things greater than 13 ounces bearing stamps without any problem, so its only sporadically enforced.

  12. cmdrsass says:

    It isn’t about security or terrorism. The policy exists to prevent people from using the postal service to anonymously ship drugs.

  13. aparsons says:

    @Dobernala: But even at those self-service kiosks with a drop box, they tell you not to drop anything greater than 13 ounces. So if you mail a box, you need to print the postage and hand it to a counter clerk. Which is the worlds biggest pain in the ass if you’ve ever seen the line at a NYC post office on a Saturday afternoon (especially the Saturday before the increase in cost of a forever stamp).

  14. Katharine says:

    @cmdrsass:
    But you don’t even have to have a return address label on it. You can still send things anonymously over 13 ounces by going in to the post office. It is a stupid rule.

  15. mantari says:

    @cmdrsass: Didn’t you get the memo? Yes, drugs are now a form of terrorism.

  16. Nick says:

    The thing that scares me is this: If you want to ship a package that is greater than 13 ounces, you now need to use a post office kiosk, buy electronic postage, or take it to the post office counter. This means that they will have your photo/id on file from the time you shipped the package (kiosks have cameras & use credit cards; post office counters have security cameras; e-postage requires a credit card). It is simply not possible to send a package anonymously anymore.

    I usually don’t care too much about privacy stuff, but this rubbed me the wrong way for some reason.

  17. Taed says:

    I get that sticker reasonably often, as I sell my old books via Amazon.com.

    My first thought had been that they don’t want “big” packages to go on their airplanes. But no, nearly everything I mail is “media mail”, and so, that never goes on a plane.

    My next thought had been that it’s really a postal union demand to prevent the carriers from carrying heavy loads. But that doesn’t jive either since my postal carrier always picks up the package (and sometimes returns it). So, if that were the reason, they would enforce the limit when picking it up.

    The completely wacky thing is that I’ll mail packages that are sometimes 3 pounds or more, and my carrier will pick them up. So, it’s very obvious to the carrier that it is overweight.

    But oddly, I only get the packages returned with the sticker about 1 in 3 times, and it’s usually about 4 days later.

    So, I typically just peel the sticker off and re-mail it. I’ve never gotten it returned a second time.

    On the occasions where I have taken it in, the clerk just throws it into the “back room pile” along with everything else. (They do not check it and they do not stamp it in any way.) But wouldn’t that be the same pile that all of the other mail? How does handing it to a clerk improve security in ANY way?

    And if it is to prevent people from anonymously shipping stuff, how does this prevent it? I don’t show my ID, they don’t take any info from me, and even if my picture were on a camera, how would they tie that with a particular package? That “reason” doesn’t jive either.

    This is one of those things that I really would like to see a rational reason for.

  18. Sherryness says:

    This is a regulation that has been in effect for YEARS. Why suddenly the big deal?

  19. guido64 says:

    The big deal is that they may have had the rule for years, but now they are enforcing it. I have had numerous packages returned with the dreaded label. The guidelines state you have to give the package to a postal employee. That is the kicker. Most mail deliveries are now handled by contract workers and they are not allowed to take the 13+ oz package. It used to be you could drop them in a box, but has anyone seen a mailbox lately? They are going the way of the Phone Booth. So we all mail less mail because it has become too difficult to do so and what do they do? Raise the rates on a stamp because their revenue is decreasing or flat. Grrrrr

  20. stuny says:

    I am lost here. Why would you mail your mother a can of soda?

  21. ChuckECheese says:

    @stuartny: My mom loves Tab. She’d probably love some. Maybe next Mother’s Day. Maybe a 6-pack instead of a single can, as it’s more posh.

    Diet Coke: 12.9 oz wt
    Coke: 13.6 oz wt

  22. Brushing aside the empty-headed pap predictably spewed here to somehow connect this simple issue to a thought-challenged manifesto on the current war, I have a serious, and actually related, question:
    I was recently told by the USPS counter person that I could not ship some bottles of perfume, as there was a prohibition against shipping liquids. Have others come across this? Is this recent? Does anyone know what this would not apply to, say, Amazon.com, but would to me, if it’s a safety issue?

  23. camille_javal says:

    @guido64: I think it’s also the drop in weight that’s making you notice it more – I think it was 16 oz. until recently. Anyway, I got a package returned to me with the dreaded sticker way back in the salad days that were 1999.

    @Taed: My next thought had been that it’s really a postal union demand to prevent the carriers from carrying heavy loads. But that doesn’t jive either since my postal carrier always picks up the package (and sometimes returns it). So, if that were the reason, they would enforce the limit when picking it up.

    hm… I wonder, though, if this might not be it to some degree – it could even explain some sporadic enforcement, if you have a carrier who doesn’t have to haul stuff around very much (and thus is willing to bend the rules), versus when you drop it in a mailbox (in which case, if everybody violated, it could be bad). As for why it then actually goes in, gets weighed, and comes back – who knows? That could be where the classic USPS logic comes in.

    I think the USPS response of “vagueness for security reasons” smacks of “we use ‘security’ to keep from having to explain anything these days,” all to common both in the government and private sectors.

    @uberbucket: There are even specific media restrictions. You are not allowed to mail copies of dvds, or cds. The USPS is enforcing MPAA and RIAA policies.

    Are you speaking of unauthorized copies of DVDs and CDs? (Since the USPS still says, “Media Mail® service is a cost efficient way to mail books, sound recordings, recorded video tapes, printed music, and recorded computer-readable media (such as CDs, DVDs, and diskettes).”) Then, they aren’t enforcing “MPAA and RIAA policies.” They’re enforcing federal law.

    I despise the RIAA with every fiber of my being, but the RIAA does not equal copyright law.

    (I’m pretty sure enforcing MPAA and RIAA policies involves going beyond the enforcement of copyright to kicking puppies and punching babies.)

  24. camille_javal says:

    @AtomicPlayboy: Hm… is perfume a flammable liquid? You can’t mail flammable liquids. It could be the worker was making that assumption; I know that when I order potentially flammable cleaning products from a website that usually uses USPS, they have to ship them by UPS Ground.

    If she just said all liquids, it could have been postal worker illogic you were dealing with, and not USPS illogic.

    And, trying to navigate the USPS site, I realized that only packages up to 13 oz. can be First-Class mail; over that, and it has to be Express/Priority, Parcel Post, or Media Mail. So maybe *that’s* the explanation? Technically, if it’s not first class, you’re supposed to have to take it in (but some carriers, if you’ve put enough stamps on, and maybe marked “Media Mail,” won’t bother to enforce)?

    That wouldn’t explain the “for security reasons” response, but I still say that’s “I don’t feel like answering” bullshit.

  25. sabrinad says:

    @AtomicPlayboy: I think it may have to do with flammability. Alcohol-based perfumes would be flammable (and potentially explosive), so they should be treated with certain precautions. Amazon probably has things shipped with specific methods (e.g., freight vs. air) due to the package contents, whereas the USPS has no assurance that Joe Customer knows what a flash point is, much less what the flash point of his particular item is. Of course, they might also just distrust your ability to seal the container adequately enough so they don’t all wind up stinking of Chanel No. 5. :)

    And Chris… clearly, if the post office were to tell you that the Unabomber used to use the mail to ship bombs, you would go start shipping bombs through the mail. So that’s why they can’t explain — because nobody has ever heard of a mailbox bomb, and we certainly don’t want them to start knowing now!

  26. John says:

    As others have noted, they’re not even remotely consistent in their enforcement. I routinely mail packages over the limit here in NYC in mailboxes without having them returned (as in I have NEVER had one returned).

  27. ByeBye says:

    All of this discussion and no one realized how superstitious the USPS is…sigh

  28. SayAhh says:

    @John: you also routinely speed on the freeways (and you have NEVER had been ticketed) doesn’t mean that there’s inconsistency–only understaffing.

    Alas, don’t shoot the messenger! Even seldom-enforced rules are made up by bureaucrats who’ve never carried mail! I remember reading Congress wanting the postal service to buy all these massive irradiating equipment when the anthrax scare broke out, only to say that they themselves will never open an envelope that’s been irradiated. LMAO That’s government for you: scare tactics and no-bid contracts.

    BTW, the 13-ounce rule makes no sense to me, either, just like taking off your shoes (and nipple piercings) for the TSA sadists’ pleasure…

  29. rworne says:

    This rule started from the Unabomber back during the Clinton Administration. It had nothing to do with 9-11 aside from ensuring the rule becomes permanent.

    The purpose is to get people into the P.O. so they can be on camera.

    UPS also has had issues with sealed boxes. Both they and the USPS have opened boxes in front of me to “inspect” contents. UPS told me they want the boxes brought open to the facility where they will be inspected then shipped. (This was at the UPS facility in South Philly in 2000).

    I guess UPS was curious why a large box weighed less than 2-3 lbs. It was full of Utz potato chips being sent back to California.

  30. elislider says:

    *problem statement*
    *official statement providing no information*
    *vaguely related semi-official statement confirming the official statement and only further showing ridiculousness of homeland security*

  31. TechnoDestructo says:

    @scoobydoo:

    Yes, because all those anthrax letters weighed at least 14 ounces.

  32. TechnoDestructo says:

    @cmdrsass:

    Because you can’t ship less than 13 ounces of drugs at a time.

  33. midwestkel says:

    Since its the Government you can complain, it probably wont get you anywhere or you can take it to the Post Office or you can buy a cheap scale. The other alternatives require either going somewhere and paying higher prices or buying a scale and still paying higher prices. USPS FTW (I ship a lot)!

  34. tahamaki says:

    Here’s the thing, though, if you put the recipient’s address as the return address as well as the recipient, it will still get there if you drop it in the mailbox.

    I used to work for the credit card department of a fairly large chain of women’s clothing stores (in more ways than one), and twice a year there was a credit card signup contest, so we were inundated. Toward the end, the apps were priority mailed to get into us by the due date, and I noticed that label on several packages where we were both the return address and the shipper, even though they were coming from all over the country.

    Reallllll secure, I tell ya.

  35. forgottenpassword says:

    I assumed this was because of the unabomber shipping his bomb-packages by slapping more postage than was needed & dropping them off anonymously in mailboxes. There are now BIG stickers on all public mailboxes stating that you cant send …blah blah blah. I mail my mail via those boxes on the way to or from work because i dont want some thief grabbing my utility payments out of my mailbox & washing the checks.

  36. bostonmike says:

    “The purpose is to get people into the P.O. so they can be on camera.” Not all post offices have security cameras. Many post offices have no security cameras at all.

    If your package is returned with one of those blue stickers for being over 13 ounces and left at a mailbox, it won’t be returned by plane. The USPS is concerned about the safety of their planes, not the safety of the customer opening the package.

  37. @scoobydoo: Yet the exact same package can go with FedEx, UPS, DHL or any other carrier.

    I seem to be fresh out of FedEx stamps. Do you have any?

  38. ChuckECheese says:

    How many mail trucks have been blown up by bottles of Stetson or Emeraude? I’d say approximately none. USPS, and technically, UPS and FedEx also prohibit cologne shipments. These rules are flaunted constantly, except many overseas sellers won’t ship alcohol-y liquids to the U.S. anymore. I used to buy 35% hydrogen peroxide in the mail, but that can only be shipped with hazardous materials packaging and labeling, making it not worth the $$.

  39. Chaosium says:

    “Can I opt-out and live in an America with ever so slightly more risk, in exchange for tons more convenience?”

    God I wish, as long as I can also opt out of those “for the children” idiots while I’m at it.

  40. FLConsumer says:

    Here’s the funny part. I can use a stolen credit card (or made up # for that matter) on USPS.com, print the postage, and dump any weight package in any mailbox and the 13oz rule no longer applies. Real security there.

    Furthermore, anything shipped priority mail will almost always go by air…and is NOT inspected. So while the TSA is giving you a rectal exam, anyone really wanting to bring down a plane can do so with some crude engineering (an old altimeter) and you’re done. No need to learn how to fly, no need to deal with the TSA. No need to even change out of your pyjamas.

  41. TPS Reporter says:

    So you have to take it to the post office yourself. So if you are of middle eastern descent will they refuse it? Or do they make you show them what is in there?

  42. Letsgohokies says:

    This is only for “stamped” mail. I use one of those Pitney Bowes meters/printers for postage at our office. I had a package that was over 13 ounces and was going to put it in the blue mail container in the post office parking lot. There was a sign posted on the box about the 13 ounce rule. I took the package inside to hand to them, and the cashier said I could have put it in the box since it was metered. FYI.

  43. George_Seldes says:

    The rude woman at the post office where I am forced to bring my books for mailing explained to me, after sighing and rolling her eyes like I was a moron, that they had determined that 13 oz. was the magic number for the amount of explosive for bringing down an airplane, and that therefore you couldn’t just drop a 13 oz package in the mail with stamps. When I asked why you could mail a 13 ozer without having to show up at the post office if you used a postal label, she never responded, she just said “That’s the policy.”

    In other words, the same government that did such a good job on 9/11 and in tracking down the folks who mailed all the anthrax thinks that terrorists are too stupid to get a dummy front in order to get a postal meter.

  44. alhypo says:

    I’m not sure why they are being so vague about the whole thing. The reason behind this policy is rather obvious: they don’t want people to be able to mail packages above 13-ounces in a completely anonymous manner. If you go into the post office, they at least have you on camera.

    Of course, if you want to mail someone a bomb, you could mail it locally with your target’s address as the return. So I would recommend not opening any returned packages you don’t recall sending.

  45. wring says:

    to add insult to injury, same rule applies to flat rate priority mail boxes. can haz phaseout of usps plz?

  46. sean98125 says:

    Put the recipient’s address in the return address slot. Don’t put postage on it.

    They’ll “return” the letter to the recipient for postage, or to be taken to the post office.

    Works great for local mail.

  47. Dobernala says:

    @aparsons: No, they do not. The purpose of the rule is to prevent people from mailing stamped things over 13 ounces without handing it over. If you use a meter and print postage, you’re OK.

  48. Syrenia says:

    @guido64: They were enforcing it ten years ago as well, although it might be more of an issue of where you are. I worked for a small software company, and our packages were 17 ounces. We always had to take them to the post office if they needed to go out late. But the letter carrier would take them from our office when he made his rounds, so that part is either different or wasn’t enforced in our area. (We didn’t have a meter at our office.)

    The explanation that we had from the post office was that the mail might go on a passenger jet, and that it was to prevent explosives from making it through. Not sure entirely how handing the package to someone who has never seen you before and likely never will again is supposed to have helped…

  49. MyCokesBiggerThanYours says:

    You guys are seriously complaining about breaking the rules and it goes wrong?

  50. mikelotus says:

    @timmus: pretty piss poor theory, glad the man in your picture was smarter than that.

    @Taed: don’t assume everything media mail does not go an airplane. that would be a very bad assumption.

  51. mikelotus says:

    @MyCokesBiggerThanYours:
    yea the whine factor here is out of control.

  52. LUV2CattleCall says:

    @scoobydoo: @aparsons: @schwnj: @bostonmike:

    The USPS doesn’t own planes…the use extra room on either Fed/Ex or UPS, I forget what it is this month.

    Re: Credits cards for ID purposes: Get one of those visa pre-paid things from Wal-Mart

  53. backbroken says:

    So what have we learned here? If your plot to terrorize the country involves 13 oz or larger packages, use UPS.

  54. cadet526 says:

    In the future, just put the shipping address in the return address area and they will mail it for you, for free!!

  55. LionelEHutz says:

    And for our next topic — dumb rules and the dumb people who try and justify them.

  56. tape says:

    What amuses me the most about this requirement is that if you go into a Post Office and deal with someone at the counter, the only additional “security” that occurs is that the clerk asks you “does this package contain anything liquid, fragile, perishable or potentially hazardous?”

    you know how someone mailing a bomb or drugs is going to respond to that question? “no.”

  57. wildness says:

    Here’s another one from the Absurd USPS security play book: They are removing stamp machines from all post offices because they are a security risk. Yes, I am afraid of being stamped to death.

  58. wildness says:

    @tape: They don’t even ask me that.

  59. radio1 says:

    First, I wanna know why all the hate for the Post Office? If you do not like the USPS, ship Fedex or UPS.

    And stop complaining about the 13oz rule, before that the rule was 16/18oz, not much difference.

    @AtomicPlayboy: Certain items can not be shipped by the US Mail. These include dangerous and hazardous items, and the rule just applies to stamped items– which are untraceable…

  60. jswilson64 says:

    So, if I take a 16-ounce package, put stamps on it, and put the address I want it to go to in both the “To” and “From” areas, what happens then?

  61. @camille_javal: @sabrinad:
    @radio1:
    That makes sense. Thanks.

  62. eyespyNicolai says:

    Yeah. I work at a Chamber of Commerce in my city. We frequently send out our business directory/visitors guide by way of Priority Mail envelopes. Our now retired mail carrier was super-cool and used to take them for me anyway, but when he wasn’t working I had to hoof it to the line at the office; Where it would get weighed, bar-coded and then stamped with a red certification logo and placed in a “special box”. (even the dude working there said it’s totally pointless and ridiculous) In fact, I once had a PO employee forget to red-stamp my envelopes and they came back to my office in the…you guessed it… next days mail. Frackin’ Stupid.

  63. lotusflwr says:

    I always use Paypal (or you can use USPS Click-n-ship, or the self-serve kiosk at larger postal branches) to print out postage at home, and then as long as the package fits in my mailbox, a USPS mailbox or the self-serve shipping drop box at the post office, I’m good to go.

    Electronic postage is the way to go.

  64. FixinTo says:

    USPS “security” regulations are truly baffling. At the Chamblee, Georgia, post office, we used to be able to drop our pre-paid packages at the counter without standing in the excruciatingly long lines. Then the clerks started encouraging us to take our packages around to the loading dock. Next they have posted signs at each clerk’s station that say we must take prepaid packages to the loading dock. There is often no one in sight at the loading dock, and unattended packages are piled high. Secure??? BTW, our packages won’t fit into mailbox slots, so that’s not an option.