Monday, July 13, 2009

Virtual Mail

We are about to move to Europe for a few years and during that time, we need to be able to maintain a virtual presence here in the US, to make going back and forth more easy, to stay in touch with friends and family and to take advantage of the greatest consumer paradise on earth, where everything is available for a buck or two.

An important part of maintaining a presence is to have a US mailing address - e.g. this required to have a US credit card and to have stuff shipped to you. For certain things a PO box would do, for others you need a real street address - e.g. to accept packages.

Traditional mail forwarding places have existed for a long time, basically private mailbox operators who also provide the service to periodically mail the content of the mailbox to a forwarding address.

Shipping overseas is really expensive and the idea of getting a box of junk-mail sent to us every months or so does not seem too appealing. Also if something is really important, it might also be urgent and can't wait until the next delivery.

Fortunately there are also alternative which integrate paper mail more closely with e-mail. Most of the time, I don't need the physical piece of paper which is being sent in the envelope, just to know what is in it or to know as soon as possible that it arrived is often good enough.

There are a few services for expats and other nomadic users without a steady mailing address which offer online remote mail management. This typically involves scanning all incoming envelopes and sending email notifications when something new arrived. The user can the log into a web application - their virtual PO box and decide what to do with the content: ship it to another forwarding address, shred it and throw it away or in some cases, have it opened and the contents scanned and made available through the virtual PO box.

We ended up choosing Earth Class Mail because of their emphasis on scan & discard vs shipping. Yes, it is a bit scary to have random strangers open up your mail and it is a bit hard to be trusting a startup company in this current financial climate that they will not certainly disappear of do some very shady things out of desperation.

Fortunately all my financial accounts support online interfaces as well and most of them are coming around to let users opt out of any paper statements and transaction records - green is in right now! Unfortunately at least one of them insists in spamming me with silly offers, which I hope is something I can get them to stop so that it might be easier to recognize the envelope with the new credit card or the new PIN code and selectively forward it, without having to open them.

And for a lot of other things, my life just isn't interesting enough to provide the workers in the mail processing facility with a lot of entertainment and for the rest I hope they would be too busy to engage in large scale identity theft.

After setting up the account, we had to send in quite a bit of paperwork - certified copies of passports and other IDs for the US postal service to deliver mail to a third party mail handling agent. After all this had been received and processed, we now have both a street address and a PO box address set up to choose from. PO boxes tend to draw less spam mail, but street addresses are necessary for all those situations where a PO box address is not accepted.

I sent a test letter to both addresses and was quite surprised how quickly they envelope pictures appeared online. After I requested open & scan, the images of the content appeared online a day or so later. Despite being located in the Pacific northeast, they must have local processing on the east-coast as well, since the letter mailed to an east-coast address appeared online a day or so ahead of the one sent to the west-coast address - and only about two days after I had mailed in New York City. I was quite impressed with the speed.

We have not switched over any of our important mailings to this new virtual address(es), so I can't really say yet how well it works. I am a bit worried that once the address leaks out onto the commercial mailing lists, we will get so much spam mail to eat up our monthly envelope scanning quota just for that. I guess we'll just have to become more aggressive about fighting spam.