It is one of the more frustrating tasks we mailers face: Explaining to customers why a mail piece was returned undelivered, and how to interpret the reason given for non-delivery. And the task hasn’t been made any easier now that move update compliance is being enforced.
To review: The move update standards were adopted by the USPS to reduce the number of mail pieces that are undeliverable as addressed, thereby, requiring either forwarding, return to the sender, or disposal. There are five ways that mailers can comply with move update standards. The most prevalent for smaller mailers is National Change of Address (NCOA) processing or ancillary service endorsement (ASE) on the mail piece.
Prior to mailing, NCOA processing compares the mail list to the USPS-maintained database of change-of-address orders that have been filed by households and businesses. The promise of NCOA processing is that it provides feedback on the accuracy of the address prior to mailing. This enables the mail list owner to update addresses with current information, to delete undeliverable addresses, and to delete records that are no longer of interest because the addressee is not part of the intended target audience. Mailers save money on printing, mailing services, and postage and mail pieces are delivered faster to the intended recipient.
That’s the promise. The reality is somewhat different.
NCOA processing can only be as good as the data itself, and there are some problems with the NCOA database. One problem that is relatively easy to explain to customers is an inaccuracy resulting from the time lag between when the USPS receives a change-of-address order and when it is incorporated into the NCOA database and made available for comparison to a mailing list. Although the USPS issues an updated NCOA file every two weeks; the time lag is potentially greater because of internal procedures to get a change order into the database, plus time to prepare and release the database.
Another problem is the growing number of households and businesses that are not participating in change-of-address. In fact, the USPS has data to suggest that as many as 40% of movers fail to file change-of-address orders. The problem has gotten worse as economic conditions cause people to move, in part to escape creditors. Some movers are not filing change-of-address orders at all, are filing orders without a forwarding address, or are filing inaccurate orders.
Inaccuracies in the NCOA database can also be introduced by misusing the online change-of-address filing process to create unauthorized change-of-address orders for others. Initially, someone who was filing change-of-address orders online would not be challenged or asked to provide proof of identity. The process has improved somewhat, as filers are now required to prove identity by using a credit card address as verification, and a confirmation of the change order is sent to the filer along with instructions for how to counteract the change if it is not accurate.
Even if the change-of-address information in the NCOA database is correct, there is a possibility that the OCR scanners used in MLOCR equipment will misread the address on a mail piece and match it to the wrong change-of-address order. This results in the possibility that a correct address could be changed to an incorrect address.
Change-of-address orders remain in the NCOA database for 48 months. However, NCOA processing offers two levels of service:
Limited: With limited service, the look-back period for change orders is 18 months from the time the order wassubmitted.
Full: With full service, the look-back period is 48 months.
If a mailer is using a list that has not been exercised in a long time, it is possible that a change order could be on file, but not matched to an address because it is outside the 18 month period, or not matched because it is outside the 48 month limit.
Ancillary service endorsement (ASE) is an alternate to NCOA for move update compliance. It differs from NCOA because it is a post-mailing process.