Sunday, September 23, 2007


A warm, inviting breeze rises from the ocean across the street from the condo that my reader and her husband recently sold to purchase a condo in a different part of the Hawaiian islands. Sunset strolls along the beach in this area can be spectacular.

So what does my reader's husband miss most about his former residence? His catalogs.

When they sold their condo -- to someone who does not plan to live in it, but rather to rent it out to vacationers -- they were required to turn over one complete set of keys, which they did.

My reader's husband decided to keep his extra mailbox key, however, so that he could return to the condo occasionally and check to see if any of his catalogs had arrived, since the U.S. Postal Service will not forward catalogs. When he checks, he sometimes leaves behind the catalogs addressed to him that he doesn't want, taking only those that interest him. He never tampers with mail addressed to anyone else.

"I told him that he couldn't check the mailbox any longer, even if he had a key," my reader writes, "because it didn't belong to him any longer."

She also worries that he may be committing a federal offense by giving himself access to someone else's mail.

"Is it right," she asks, "for him to go into that mailbox?"

I can understand, I guess, the burning desire not to miss the latest that Orvis has to offer in fly-fishing gear or to find exactly the right waffle iron from Williams Sonoma's most recent catalog.

But if the tug is that strong, my reader's husband should call the catalog companies and ask them to start sending their books to his new address. There is no ethical justification for him to be going into the new owner's mailbox, to retrieve catalogs or for any other purpose. Presumably he wouldn't use a spare set of door keys to enter his old condo and check around, so by the same logic he should not be using the key to a mailbox that is no longer his own.

And yes, according to Tim Harrington, a Boston-based public-information officer for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, he's likely violating federal law as well. Unlawful possession of a mailbox key for unauthorized purposes can result in jail time and a prison sentence of as long as 10 years, according to Title 18, Section 1704 of the United States Code.

"It's stupid, real stupid, and not worth it," Harrington says. "I hope to God that all he's doing is checking his catalogs."

It seems obvious that the stiff jail sentences are meant to deter people from stealing other people's mail, not to send catalog buffs to the slammer. But if any of the new owner's mail goes missing and my reader's husband is discovered to have been opening her locked mailbox, law-enforcement officers may have a hard time believing that he was simply checking up on his catalogs.

"It's not his box and he shouldn't be doing it," Harrington says, and I have to agree.

The right thing for my reader's husband to do is to dispose of the mailbox key or give it to the condo's new owner as soon as possible.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

The right thing - the only thing that makes sense - is for him to give the key to the rightful owner of the box. It's not his mailbox any longer, and it's not his key, as it's not his mailbox. Ethically and legally, the choice is simple.

Anonymous said...

Wow! How about proffering some hard questions? Of course it is wrong to keep the key, but I'm concerned about the seller's mistrust of the buyre: Why didn't he just ask the buyer to forward copies of mail to him, and maybe give him a half dozen pre-addressed mailers (with postage) to send him any mail that came?.

Jan Bohren

Mary Jan said...

Not only unethical, but illegal too.

Against federal law to touch someone else's mail.

Anonymous said...

Where we live in a manufactured-housing village, when a place is sold and a new owner moves in, the post office changes the lock on the mail box and the new owner if given the key(s). That would prevent a former owner from getting into his/her old mail box.

Marsha Heimlich
Inver Grove Heights, MN

Anonymous said...

Jeff - Interesting that the guy didn't think there's anything wrong with getting 'just the catalogs'. Of course it's illegal and thus by definition unethical. Because he's doing it without permission. He certainly should get the addresses changed. But that does take a loooong time (been there/done that). Until he can get the addresses changed, what if asks for permission to get just the catalogs from the mail box. If he has permission would it be unethical to get the catalogs?

Gary Zeune, CPA, Founder
The Pros & The Cons
World's only speakers bureau for white-collar criminals