What Happens to Lost Mail?

The USPS Mail Recovery Center is more sorting center than graveyard. Make an inquiry, and you'll likely get your undelivered mail back.

You labored over the bi-annual recap letter to your grandma, who only accepts snail mail or a phone call. The letter tops a call only when you don’t have hours to spare catching up on her latest whacky new project. But alas, it’s been over seven days—the official period of time for mail to be considered missing—and she still hasn’t received your missive. Should you give it more time? Do you need to track it down? Is this going to take hours that you just don’t have right now? Here’s what happens to lost mail.

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has a system for locating and dealing with lost mail and packages—as in, what happens to undeliverable mail with no return address. Originally called the Dead Mail Center, it was renamed the Mail Recovery Center (MRC) to emphasize the USPS’s ultimate goal of returning valuable undeliverable mail to the sender. Whatever you want to call it, think of it less like a mail graveyard and more like a sorting center. Ultimately, the fate of your grandma’s letter ending up in the MRC depends on the contents of the envelope.

What makes it to the Mail Recovery Center—and what doesn’t?

Items that might be forwarded include loose-in-mail items valued at $25 or more, technology, clothing, or guns. The USPS defines items that will not be returned to sender as any printed matter—such as a newspaper or magazine—mail that could attract pests, live mail, low-value used clothing, or loose-in-mail contents under $25 (i.e., letters). Low-value items are either thrown away, recycled, or donated.

What to do if you have missing mail

Before you go all Nancy Drew on your lost mail, be sure to check USPS tracking—if your mail or package has tracking—and that will confirm its status. If you don’t have a tracking number and your mail or package has completely vanished, like your grandma’s sense of time, start with an inquiry. Typically packages are returned within seven days. The final resort is to submit a missing mail search. Include specifics like the sender and receiver mail address, size and type of container, the tracking number or mailed date, or any photos to help mail carriers identify the lost mail or package.

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Isabelle Tavares
Isabelle Tavares is a journalism graduate student at the Newhouse School of Syracuse University and former ASME intern for RD.com, where she wrote for the knowledge, travel, culture and health sections. Her work has been published in MSN, The Family Handyman, INSIDER, among others. Follow her on Twitter @isabelletava.