Can I reuse the uncanceled stamps from my junk mail?

Dear Cecil:

My mail is deluged with worthless credit card solicitations and pleas for donations, all bearing telltale stamps of odd denomination: "Tractor 7.1 cents nonprofit," "Oilwagon 10.1 cents bulk rate," "Railroad Mail Car 21 cents presorted," etc. These stamps are almost never cancelled. Can I reuse them for my own (nobler) epistles, provided they add up to 29 cents?

Cecil replies:

Well, nowadays it’s 33 cents.  Time marches on.  But I know what you’re talking about. As you probably guessed, you can’t re-use these oddball stamps legally. The whole point of such stamps is that they don’t require cancellation. Eliminating a step in handling saves the postal service money, which it passes along to mailers in the form of rate discounts. Thus the odd denominations. Skipping the stamp altogether and using a bulk-rate-postage-paid mark printed on the envelope (an “indicia”) would save the senders even more money (no labor to stick stamps), but some bulk mailers prefers stamped letters on the theory that they’re less likely to get thrown away unread.

What’s to prevent you from reusing the stamps? Couple things. One, bulk rate stamps are used on bulk mail — that is, a big presorted heap o’ letters delivered directly to the PO accompanied by the necessary form. If your solitary letter shows up in a collection box that’s a pretty good clue it’s not legit. Two, stamps intended for first-class mail have a phosphorescent ink on them to help orient the letter properly for cancellation. If the cancelling machine doesn’t detect any phosphorescent ink (most of the stamps you mention don’t have it), the letter is kicked out for special handling, at which point your little dodge may be discovered.

Granted, it probably won’t be. Given a volume of 550 million pieces of mail per day, it’s likely most of your illicit missives will get through. Reused metered mail — e.g., clasp envelopes that don’t show obvious signs of having been opened and readdressed — is even less likely to be detected; postage meters use phosphorescent ink and it’s perfectly OK to drop a single metered item in the mailbox.

Most mail without proper postage is simply returned. If you cheated in quantity and conspicuously encouraged your friends to do the same, the feds might decide to charge you with conspiracy and fraud. But the real deterrent is that most people have what’s known as a life. You’d have to be pretty desperate for entertainment to take any deep satisfaction in cheating the government out of 33 cents.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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