BOSTON — YOU probably receive 40 pounds of junk mail every year, and throw out almost all of it. No one claims to like ``third-class bulk business mail,'' but it brings in big bucks for the United States Postal Service, it gets cash flowing for companies, and it draws donations for nonprofits. Consumers like it more than they let on, perhaps: Nearly 100 million Americans bought something by mail last year, according to the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) in New York. That figure is up 70 percent since 1983.
It's not ``junk'' if you like receiving it. But how do you cut out the unwanted mail? By telling companies that you order from, or organizations you donate to, not to trade your name.
Otherwise, once companies get your name and address, they put you on a list and trade you like a hockey player for years. Even Uncle Sam is interested in mailing lists: A few years back, the Internal Revenue Service asked several upscale catalog companies for their lists, to cross-check against tax returns. Only one company gave its list away.
Last year, 63.5 billion pieces of bulk mail (commercial and nonprofit solicitations) and 13.6 billion catalogs went out to tempt America to shop or contribute - more than 300 pieces of mail for every person in the US.
The DMA offers these options for those wanting to cut off the flow of unsolicited mail: Send your name to their Mail Preference Service, and you will be added to the ``name exclusion list'' that companies use to purge their own list of people who do not want mail. This should cut out about three-quarters of the junk mail you receive, but you have to list all variations of your name and address. (Computers can't tell that Jane Public, J. Public, and Jane Q. Public are the same person.) Local companies and charities that are not members of the DMA do not use these lists.
It's an all-or-nothing list: You no longer will receive catalogs you might enjoy. The list, updated quarterly, now contains some 1.6 million names.
Better yet, says the DMA, let each company know - at the time of transaction, in writing or by telephone - that you don't want your name sold or traded. ``Most every national direct-mail company will honor that request,'' says Chip Dalzell, director of public relations for DMA.
It can be hard to tell whose list you're on: Only the company that received money from you - for merchandise, a subscription, a donation, or a membership - has your name on its list; other companies only rent the list for one-time use.
At least one consumer is taking her complaint national - and selling it. Bridget Ragan, who used to scribble ``REFUSED'' across unwanted mail and send it back, has designed a rubber hand-stamp (see illustration). It is sold in a few dozen stores across the country and from her Bridgemark company in Auburn, Maine. The stamp comes with a postcard addressed to the US Postmaster General suggesting adjustments in mail rates as a way to diminish the flow of junk mail.
``This is a grass-roots effort to say, `If you want to reach me, fine. But if I don't want it, I don't want to spend my tax dollars to get rid of it,''' Ms. Ragan says. By law, citizens may refuse unopened mail that is not registered or certified. Undeliverable third-class mail is thrown out by the post office; first-class mail is returned to the sender.
Some critics, however, say this strategy puts the burden on the post office, where it doesn't belong.
To exclude yourself from lists that are traded among national commercial and nonprofit organizations, send your name (and all variations) and address to: Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, 11 W. 42nd St., P.O. Box 3861 New York, NY 10163-3861