This Is What Happens to Undeliverable Mail with No Return Address

Updated: Nov. 28, 2022

You can file a claim if your mail has gone missing, though.

Mail doesn’t get delivered for lots of reasons: the address is illegible, the sender hasn’t put on enough postage, or the person doesn’t live at the address any longer, among other reasons. If there’s a return address, the U.S. Postal Service will return it to the sender. But what happens to undeliverable mail with no return address?

Turns out, undeliverable mail has been a problem since Colonial times. In 1741, then-Philadelphia postmaster Benjamin Franklin called out almost 800 people who hadn’t picked their mail up in a local newspaper, Smithsonian reported.

“Franklin warned that if they were not redeemed before March 25 following they would be ‘sent away as dead letters to the General Post Office,'” according to the National Archives. Find out some things that will surprise you about being a mail carrier.

The Second Continental Congress established the postal service in 1775. The first official Dead Letter Office opened in 1825. In 1992, the USPS renamed it the Mail Recovery Center to reflect the goal of getting mail back to the original sender.

These days, what happens to the undeliverable mail depends a lot on what it is. According to the USPS, local post offices will handle the mail or they will send it to the Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta, Georgia—also known as the post office’s lost and found.

“If it has no value, it is destroyed,” Brenda Crouch, a retired USPS employee wrote on Quora. “If it has value and there is nothing in the contents to indicate the sender or recipient’s address, items will be auctioned.” Here are some more surprising facts about the postal service.

Adds Sandy Paonessa, another retired postal service employee: “Undeliverable and unreturnable First-Class mail is sent to the Mail Recovery Center. Letter mail is destroyed or recycled. If it is an item of value, it is held for a period of time awaiting someone to file a claim for it. If the item is not claimed, it is auctioned.”

The cut-off for value? $25. So postcards, periodicals, and political flyers don’t make the cut. If a parcel is sent to the Mail Recovery Center, workers there act as detectives, opening and scanning the mail to try and figure out where it can be returned.

“In fiscal year (FY) 2014, the Mail Recovery Center received 88 million items and processed 12 million of those valued at $25 or more,” according to an Inspector General’s report from 2016. “It returned 2.5 million items to customers—a resolution rate of 21 percent of researched items, or 3 percent of total incoming items.”

Did you send something that never reached its address? Here’s how you can file a claim. Then find out things your mail carrier won’t tell you.