Image: Mailbox © Corbis

Stopping junk mail is tough for a reason. Companies view virtually everything about you as a commodity to be sold or traded.

That includes your name and address, your age and an estimate of your income, the size of your mortgage and what you just bought on their websites or in their stores, and how much you spent there.

You may think the fact that you just purchased a swimsuit or a toy or a truss is your own bleeping business, but it's not. The retailer thinks your information is part of its business. It may share what it gleans about you with other retailers in huge databases known as co-ops that exist to help companies prospect for consumers. The retailer may sell your information to database brokers, who in turn sell it to other companies.

You don't have much of a say in this. Financial companies are required to send annual opt-out notices so customers can exclude themselves from all this sharing and trading. Other types of companies are not. There's no "don't trade me, bro" option to click when you're checking out.


That leads to an onslaught of marketers trying to grab your attention and mailboxes stuffed with junk. Many people try to fight back against this ambush. But some of the methods they try don't work. For instance, they:

Refuse to buy online. Sorry, but junk mail existed long before the Internet. Online purchases make it easy for retailers, who are prohibited from harvesting information from credit cards, to learn your address and other details about you. But companies have other methods of gleaning information, from loyalty cards to contest forms to magazine subscription databases. Public records provide a wealth of information about you as well. If you buy a home, get married, have a kid or file for bankruptcy, those events are recorded in public databases that are mined by marketers.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston


Even if you could somehow manage to stay off the radar, the Postal Service can find you. Thanks to the Postal Service's new "Every Door Direct Mail," businesses can send their ads to every home in a neighborhood. "Postage is as low as 14.5¢ per piece -- and you don't even need to know names or street addresses," the Postal Service crows on its website.

Use a prepaid envelope to opt out. "Any junk mail that has a prepaid return envelope, I put all their junk in that prepaid envelope and mail it back," one of my Facebook fans wrote. "Let them pay the postage, they usually get the idea."

Except they don't. The arm of the company that processes the returned envelopes is usually separate from the arm that handles the mailing list. Even if you pack the envelope with heavy stuff, hoping to cost the company more in postage, your protest typically will go nowhere other than the round file.

"You're sending it to the wrong spot," said Chuck Teller, the executive director of opt-out site Catalog Choice. "It feels good, but it doesn't work."

Ask to be taken off their mailing lists. Actually, this can work, although it's a hassle to call each company individually. The problem is the bad apples: the companies that ignore your requests, or worse.

Here's an illustration. Catalog Choice creates a unique email identity for each request it mails to companies on behalf of consumers. The mailbox that handles these requests has more than 650,000 responses, almost all of them spam, Teller said. In other words, companies are responding to the opt-out emails by sending more marketing messages.

"Email systems are messy, and most companies aren't being malicious," Teller said. "But we also can see Company A taking our opt-out email and selling (the email address) to Company B."

So what can you do that will make a real dent in the junk mail you receive? Here are seven options that work:

1. Opt out of (most) credit and insurance offers. OptOutPrescreen.com, operated by the major credit bureaus, allows you to remove yourself from the marketing lists the bureaus sell to lenders and insurance companies. You can delete yourself from these lists for five years at a time using the online form. To remove yourself permanently, you have to print out a form and mail it in. You have to supply your name and address.

The site suggests you also provide your Social Security number and birth date "to help to ensure that we can successfully process your request." Since the bureaus organize their databases using your Social Security number and birth date as identifiers, you probably want to provide those if you're serious about cutting down your junk mail. You'll still get offers, especially from companies that get your information from other sources. Still, you should see a noticeable decline in credit- and insurance-related junk mail, particularly if you've been inundated with it.