Post office wants to dry up `launderers' who reuse stamps. Trying to cut losses, it also tackles stamps that don't stick

Criminals are not only laundering money these days, they are laundering stamps. Literally. The United States Postal Service (USPS) is facing an estimated loss of $35 million a year because of the reuse of stamps taken from mail already delivered and washed clean of cancellation marks.

And laundering is not the only gremlin raising havoc with mail processing. The USPS also has problems with inefficient automatic sorting, adhesives that will not stick, and low-quality printing.

Facing a budget crunch, the Postal Service is seeking to cut its losses. It is hoping that big business can provide some of the answers. Last week the USPS met with nearly 100 papermakers and laid out the challenge.

Certain types of stamps issued by the Postal Service can be washed clean of their cancellation marks with common chemical products. The stamps are then able to be reused.

``There have been entire business enterprises built around this [laundering] operation,'' says Joe Brockert, program manager for the stamps division of the USPS. ``In one prosecution, three tractor-trailer loads of stamped envelopes, yet to be chemically altered and stamps removed, were confiscated by postal inspectors.''

Mr. Brockert says the Postal Service has closed down some of the larger operations, but he is concerned that the recent stamp price increases might build incentive for more laundering.

The stamp producers - including the USPS and the American Bank Note Company - asked papermakers to help them by making a paper that holds a cancel print, is readable by the automatic sorters, and is able to be printed in more detail. The USPS admits that its current paper specifications do not address these requirements.

In return, the Postal Service offered the incentive of exclusive three-year contracts with one or two papermakers. Currently, dozens of manufacturers are given one- or two-year contracts to supply the USPS with one of nine types of paper used.

In pre-automation days, stamps readily absorbed cancellation ink and therefore could not be easily washed and reused. Today, however, some stamps are coated with a phosphorescent material applied with a lacquer. That material makes the stamp readable to the light sensitive canceling machine.

But the lacquer makes the stamp plastic-like and impenetrable to the cancellation ink, making it easier to wash and reuse the stamp.

And there's another problem. The phosphorescent material does not bond well to the stamp and can rub off on nearby pieces of mail or machinery. Enough may be rubbed off one stamp that its letter is rejected by the automatic machines as not having a stamp. That letter has to be sorted and canceled by hand. That happens an estimated 50 million times a year.

Problems with the automatic canceling system account for an estimated loss of $5 million annually, because stamps that the USPS manufactures are not read properly by their automatic machines. The letters are then rejected and spilled out and must be hand sorted.

What the USPS wants now is a better-quality paper containing the phosphorescent material so no lacquer coating has to be applied.

The USPS has prephosphored papers that readily absorb cancellation ink and therefore protect against stamp reuse. But the quality of the paper is not high enough for the kind of printing it wants.

Inconsistent adhesives also add to USPS revenue losses.

Chemists say one difficulty is that one of the gums used for the adhesive is mainly dextrin, a sugar compound. Some people have such a concentration of enzymes in their saliva that when they lick the stamp, all of the gum is converted to sugar and the stamp will not stick.

The USPS also uses three types of adhesives, made by three manufacturers. Because of inconsistencies in thickness, color, and taste, ``we have problems of overlicking and underlicking,'' says Kathleen Higgins, a materials engineer for the USPS test and evaluation division.

The problem of nonsticking is a costly one. On a single day, thousands of stamps litter the floors of the nation's post offices. Many of the letters then need to be hand sorted.

The USPS plans to begin a search for a universal stamp adhesive later this month.

Like the paper, the Postal Service uses several adhesives from dozens of suppliers. It wants one, perhaps two, for all of its stamps.

The universal adhesive it seeks would have an acceptable taste, and take 15 seconds to dry (so that it could be moved if stuck on the wrong corner or wrong envelope).

The Postal Service would also like to continue research into a pressure sensitive stamp adhesive - no sponging or licking, simply press the stamp on and it stays.

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