Priority Mail: Explaining USPS Move Update to Customers

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.

To use ASE, the mail piece is printed with an endorsement that tells the USPS what action to take if the mail piece is undeliverable as addressed. Options are to forward the mail if a forwarding order is on file, to return the mail piece to the sender, or a combination. The exact action taken by the USPS depends on the class of mail (first class or standard), the nature of the mail piece, and the amount of time the change order has been in effect.

Whether NCOA or ASE has been used as the move update method, one of the first steps in mail processing is to sort the mail using equipment that incorporates optical character recognition (OCR) technology to determine how the mail will be routed to its delivery address. For letter mail, the equipment is a Multiline Optical Character Reader or MLOCR.

An MLOCR captures the image on the front of the mail piece and, on the fly, compares the address to the database of deliverable addresses. If FastForward is used in conjunction with the MLOCR the address can also be compared to the NCOA database. This results in some addresses being updated and the mail piece possibly being returned to the sender. Addresses updated in this way are easy to identify because they have a yellow sticky mailing label attached to the returned mail piece with the reason for non-delivery and an updated address if one exists.

If no match is found in the NCOA database and the address itself is found to be deliverable, then the mail piece will exit the MLOCR and continue through the postal system to the delivery address. Here, the letter carrier takes over as the verification that the person to whom the mail piece is addressed is actually at the address on the mail piece. Mail pieces returned undelivered because of action by the letter carrier can be identified by manual markings on the mail piece—a rubber stamp and/or a handwritten notation of the reason for non-delivery.

Our customers themselves create problems with move update. Some may not want their mail list changed, preferring to mail to whatever address they have, even if NCOA reveals that the address has been updated. Others may be tardy or lax in making the updates we provide as a result of NCOA processing.

Move update is a good thing for customers. It does help identify mail that is undeliverable as addressed and helps list owners keep mail lists accurate and up to date. However, due to the action of movers as well as technical limitations, move update is not able to identify all movers or even to provide complete accuracy in updating addresses. Mailers need to help customers understand the benefits of move update and also its limitations.

Nancy DeDiemar is the president of Printing Resources of Southern California, a quick print shop in Upland, CA, offering printing, copying, electronic prepress, and mailing services. Nancy is the co-publisher of Printips (, a newsletter subscription service for printers. Contact her at This article is available as a podcast at and from iTunes.