The United States Postal Service offers two services which document that a letter has been placed in the mail at a certain place on a certain date; Certified Mail and a Certificate of Mailing.
Each Certified Mail letter has a unique serial number and corresponding barcode. A Certified Mail letter does not have to be presented to a USPS employee for confirmation that it has entered the U. S. Mail. Frequent mailers of Certified Mail often keep a supply of PS Form 3800 and affix the form and proper postage to Certified Mail letters to cover mailing and fees.
The mailer may deposit properly prepared Certified Mail letters in any authorized mail receptacle without presenting the letter to a USPS employee for examination and verification.
Each Certified Mail receipt form (PS Form 3800) has a barcode which pertains to that unique receipt. During mail processing operations, when this barcode is first read by USPS scanners, the return address and addressee of the Certified Mail letter are recorded in the USPS Automated Tracking System.
The Automated Tracking System provides a record of where the particular Certified Mail letter is each time it moves through the mail stream. The system also provides a facsimile of the signature of the person who signs for the letter when it is received.
If the Certified mail letter is not delivered for any reason (unclaimed, refused, no forwarding address on file, deceased, etc.), the Automated Tracking System provides information as to each place the letter has traveled and, if returned to sender, the reason the Certified Mail letter is being returned. If the Certified Mail letter is forwarded to a new address, the Automated Tracking System provides that information too. Records of delivery or return of Certified Mail items are retained by the USPS for two years. These records are to the general public. The easiest way to trace a Certified Mail letter is to go to the USPS website and enter the Certified Mail number in the Track and Confirm section. If the Certified Mail letter was delivered, a facsimile of the signed receipt will be available online.
Since neither the sender nor the addressee can alter the USPS Automated Tracking records, those records cannot be manipulated by a party in interest who might claim receipt or non-receipt for their own interests.
A Certificate of Mailing (PS Form 3817 for individual letters and PS Form 3877 for three or more letters) certifies that a letter was presented for mailing.
The form must be presented to a USPS employee for examination at the time the letter is placed in the mail. The USPS employee examines the form, assures that proper fees are paid (at this writing, $1.20 for an individual letter; .44 each for three or more letters; $7.05 for up to 1000 letters; and .85 per each additional 1000).
With Certified Mail the amount paid for both postage and related fees are placed on the individual letter. With a Certificate of Mailing the postage for the appropriate fees is affixed to the Certificate of Mailing form, the USPS employee stamps the form with an official stamp which indicates the location and date the letter(s) was mailed. The USPS employee returns the validated receipt to the mailer. The USPS does not maintain a copy of the Certificate of Mailing. The USPS does not track these letters through the mail stream. The USPS does not verify that the addresses on those letters are complete or accurate, nor does it keep a record of whether any of those letters were returned to sender.
A Certificate of Mailing is NOT proof that a letter was received by the addressee. Since the only record of the mailing is in the possession of a party of interest, the addressee cannot rely upon the business records of a disinterested third party (USPS) in contesting the receipt of such a letter.
Many mailers are aware of the defect inherent in this form of mailing documentation. The Internal Revenue Service, for instance, recognizes this problem .The IRS asserts that: "A Certificate of Mailing with a timely date is not as evidence to them that a letter was timely sent to the IRS." A Certificate of Mailing and a letter to the IRS both stamped at the same time on the same day at the same place is considered proof.
Common uses of Certificates of Mailing include documentation that an article was mailed on a timely basis. Bulk advertising mailers, for instance, might request a Certificate of Mailing as evidence to their client that the requested number of advertisements were mailed on the requested mailing date; or a company submitting a competitive bid for a contract might obtain a Certificate of Mailing to establish the date that a bid was mailed in case the postmark might be illegible.
As of January 17, 2016, the fee for mailing a Certified Letter is $3.45. That fee per letter is the same whether the mailer is sending one Certified Letter or 10,000 Certified Letters at the same time.
The fee for mailing letters using a Certificate of Mailing is $1.35 for one letter, .38 for three or more letters, $7.95 for up to 1000 letters and additional .99 for every succeeding 1000 letters.
Therefore, it would cost a mailer $34,500.00 in fees to send 10,000 Certified Letters. To send 10,000 letters under a single Certificate of Mailing would cost the same mailer $16.86 in fees.
The USPS is required by law to set costs which reflect their expenses for each service they provide. Each Certified Mail letter must be accounted for. Letters mailed under a Certificate of Mailing are subject to random verification. Each letter listed on Certificate of Mailing Form 3877 doesn't have to be located and checked against the manifest. The vast difference in postage charged for Certified Mail versus a Certificate of Mailing reflects the assurance the U.S. Postal Service provides as to whether an article of mail was delivered.
With a Certificate of Mailing, the intensity of the verification depends upon the individual mailer's history of preparing accurate documentation for mailings. With a mailer who mails at low volume on an infrequent basis, the verification can be as high as 10% or 30 of 300 letters. For more frequent mailers of high volume the verification can be 50 of 10,000 letters mailed. USPS instructions call for verifying as few as 1of 5 mailings per week for high volume mailers with a good accuracy history.
A Certified Letter provides proof positive of if, when, and where a letter was delivered. The record of the custody and disposition of the letter is maintained by a disinterested third party (USPS) in the course of normal business. That record is available to anyone free of charge for 2 years. Much longer retention periods of the official USPS record are now available for mailers who choose to participate in the USPS Bulk Proof of Delivery program. See my article on that program for more details.
A Certificate of Mailing provides a statistical probability that a letter was placed in the mail. No record of the letter is provided to the intended addressee. No record of mailing, delivery, or return of the letter is maintained by a disinterested party (USPS). Only the sender of the letter may a record of the letter having been mailed. There is no USPS requirement that the mailer retain their record of the manifest they presented. In cases of such letters returned to sender, the sender is not required to keep any record of the disposition of those letters.
Peter Wade, was employed by the USPS for 32 years. He served in supervisory and administrative positions with the U S Postal Inspection Service in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and San Juan. He was also the Postmaster of San Juan PR and Field Division General Manager for the USPS Caribbean District responsible for providing postal services to 4 million customers and supervising 3000 USPS employees.
Mr. Wade has been a consultant and expert witness in postal related matters for 19 years. He has advised on numerous postal matters, including the merging of two independent postal services in Argentina. He has offered efficiency improvement and security advice to many business clients of the USPS. He has provided testimony in both civil and criminal proceedings in postal related litigation.
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