Friday, April 1, 2011

Still Life with Robin: Phone-y Call, Part II (and Mail Call)

by Peggy Robin

To follow up on my March 18 column on what I was sure was a scam phone call from someone masquerading as an IRS agent: It was the unanimous opinion of everyone who responded to my column that I should contact the IRS and let them know about the suspicious call. I was out of town most of last week, and decided to do just that when I got back. However, in my absence, a package of materials arrived from the IRS about our case. As you may recall from my report, after I declined to provide my caller with my social security number, she promised to send me a mailing that would contain everything the IRS had intended to go over with me by telephone. When more than a week went by without the arrival of any sort of mail from the IRS, I took that as proof that the call could be none other than a scam. Another key piece of evidence on that score, to my mind, was the refusal of the agent to give me a government callback number. She had said (I thought quite implausibly): “The IRS no longer provides us with individual extensions, so I have no number that you can call back.”

Imagine my surprise, then, when sorting through the massive pile of mail below the mail slot that I found upon my return from my trip: Not only was there a envelope from the IRS, but it contained a cover letter dated February 28. By the time I opened the envelope, the 30 day reply window was already one day in the past. There was, however, a US government phone number to call about the case.

So I called, went through about a half hour of voicemail mazes and holds, and finally got to talk to a certifiably real IRS agent about everything that had transpired. Amazingly, she confirmed that the IRS had indeed called me several weeks ago. Yes, it’s true: They do ask the recipients of their calls to recite their social security number in response to the caller’s unknown voice, before the taxpayer can even find out what the call is about. Even more strangly, the IRS agent confirmed that they don’t have the ability to give out a government callback number. She said they used to have individual extensions, but the system was changed some months ago, and that feature was taken away.

Given all this, how are taxpayers supposed to be sure that it’s really an IRS agent on the line? The agent didn’t answer that but said, rather breezily, that it was no problem that I had declined to go further over the phone. I requested that anything to be discussed be sent to me in the mail, and that was done. Now we come to the next wrinkle in the case. Why didn’t the mailing arrive within a few days? The lack of the promised mailing was to me the proof that someone had attempted to con me.

For this I think the blame falls on another giant bureaucracy: The US Postal Service. Put bluntly, our mail service ranges from abysmal to merely bad, with occasional sorties into the barely adequate. To keep this column from running on for pages and pages, I won’t list the full roster of our misadventures in mailing, but just a few highlights (lowlights, actually):

Point #1: We so often fail to receive paper bills from our utilities and other regular billers that I have switched in every case to emailed billing as the only reliable way to avoid missed bills and late charges (or prolonged phone calls to the billers explaining our mail problems).

Point #2: For a period of months we would receive our first class mail tucked inside catalogs and other junk mail. If we ever threw out a catalog without first flipping through the pages to search for envelopes and postcards, we would be at risk of losing a bill, a letter, or occasionally, a check.

Point #3: I’m sure we have never had a full month go by without receiving at least two or three pieces of mail addressed to other neighbors. For weeks we received each issue of Time magazine addressed to the Cleveland Park Library, despite the lack of any similarity between the library’s address and ours, other than the zip code. I used to drop it back into the mailbox on the corner for redelivery. Finally, I hand delivered the issue to the library and explained what had been going on. For some reason it never happened again after that.

Point #4: We once received what appeared to be an engraved invitation addressed to another couple (again, no apparent relationship to our address, this time not even the same zip code). I put it back into the mailbox for redelivery. A few days later, it was in fact redelivered … to us!

I mention these four examples, because from time to time we have taken action to attempt to nudge some improvement in our mail service. In each of the cases mentioned, we either sent a letter of complaint to the postmaster at the Brentwood facility or complained directly to the manager of the Cleveland Park post office. In each of the four cases, there would indeed be a noticeable improvement for at least a little while...and then the same problem would start happening again, or more frustratingly, some whole new problem would crop up.

We do, however, have a nice collection of letters in response from various postal officials apologizing for the trouble and vowing to reform. Like the spouse of a philanderer who has sworn fidelity too many times, I no longer put stock in the vows. The only reason I don’t give up on the relationship altogether is that there are some things, even in the age of the internet, that can only be done by mail. Just a few days ago, my younger daughter heard from the colleges she applied to in the fall. Three of those colleges do not post their decisions on a secure web site, nor do they use email; they are still using snail mail. As my daughter is now deciding among her acceptances, I urge her to consider any US-mail-dependent college as somewhat backward, and hold that as a strike against the school.

To end on a more postive note, I would just say that my relationship with the US Postal Service hasn't always been such a downer. At my previous house, just three blocks away (though an eon ago), I had what must have been the world’s best mailman. His name was Ray. He knew every single mail recipient on his route. I honestly can't recall a single case of misdelivered mail. He even got mail to us that was so badly misaddressed, it deserved to go astray. To this day I don’t know how he did it. He was also a great guy. If he saw me out doing any gardening (I’ve already written before about what a terrible gardener I am), he used to give me pointers to save me from my own horticultural incompetence.

Ray was close to retirement age at the time we moved from that house to this one, and I’m glad to report that he got out of the mail-carrying trade before the postal system entered its present, undeniable state of decline. Even more happily, I can report that Ray managed to amass quite a retirement nest egg for himself, due to his sideline in Washington real estate. During our chats he would tell me that he made a practice to buy up townhouses in DC that were in need of repairs, fix them up, and sell them. He began doing this long before I met him and got out when he retired, well before the housing bubble burst. So I think I'll stop here, with a happy ending for at least one person in this little tale of mailings and calls.


  1. I still remember with much pleasure the letter I received many years ago addressed to: The Steadmans, Around the corner on Newark Street, Washington, DC 20008 -- and no problem -- it arrived!

    Alison Steadman

  2. It's not just Cleveland Park but all over. I dropped a check into a mailbox near DC Superior Court and Judiciary Square metro addressed to a friend in Dupont Circle. Not only did my friend never receive it but it arrived 11 months later in my mailbox stamped "no such address return to sender" but no postmark with a date on it! Well of course there was an address and inside the envelope was my dated check to friend showing it had indeed been 11 months. Yes I yearn for yesteryear's US mail efficiency. In college while traveling abroad I once addressed something to a friend as follows "friend name, in the yellow highrise just off interstate 45 by the north side of the mall, Houston TX". And my friend got it!!