WASHINGTON -- The ability of companies to obtain the names and addresses of millions of people who leave forwarding information with the post office is coming under congressional scrutiny.
Since 1985, the U.S. Postal Service has been licensing a computerized list of all its change-of-address forms to marketing, insurance and credit companies. As a result, people who have moved and want to keep their new addresses private cannot do so if they want the post office to forward their mail.
As required by the 1974 Privacy Act, which stipulates that all government bodies must get permission to distribute a person's name and address, the postal change-of-address form reads: "Filing this form is voluntary, but your mail cannot be forwarded without an order. If filed, your new address may be given to others."
The Postal Service says it is not selling the list, which would be illegal, but only licensing computerized access to it. But the marketing companies can sell the updated addresses to other businesses, enabling catalog companies, for example, to pursue potential customers from one address to another.
Privacy-rights advocates say the arrangement creates an inappropriate partnership between the Postal Service and the private sector.
The Information Subcommittee of the House Government Operations Committee will examine the dissemination of the so-called National Change of Address List at a hearing today.
"I have two concerns about the NCOA," said Rep. Bob Wise, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the House subcommittee. "First, people don't have adequate notice, and, second, they don't have a choice." Mr. Wise said he would propose that each change-of-address card include a box to be checked by those who do not want their names and addresses to be disseminated.
But Robert G. Krause, director of the Postal Service's Office of Address Information Systems, said, "We don't believe the appropriate role of the Postal Service is to be participating in consumer preference with respect to what mail they receive."
Currently, 23 direct-mail marketers, credit bureaus and insurance companies buy the list for an initial licensing fee of $80,000 and a yearly charge of $52,000.
The 1974 Privacy Act and Postal Service laws say that the licensees may access, but not copy, the list and can use it only to update addresses on existing mailing lists. But Mr. Krause said, "We cannot attempt to tell our licensees what they can or cannot do" once they have accessed the list.
The Postal Service says that licensing access to the list has saved the Postal Service $1 billion dollars since 1985 by alleviating the need to forward mail.
Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal, said the issue was not the inconvenience of receiving junk mail but the dangers of personal information becoming easily accessible. "Does any postal customer expect when he or she innocently fills out a change-of-address card at the local post office that he or she is providing an address update to the nation's major mailers?" Mr. Smith asked.
Mr. Smith also expressed concern that one of the nation's largest credit-reporting companies, a division of TRW Inc. of Cleveland, is licensed to access the Postal Service list.
Last December, the Federal Trade Commission charged the company with violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act by maintaining inaccurate credit reports and "furnishing consumer reports to persons TRW did not have a reason to believe intended to use the information for a permissible purpose."