What does it mean for mail to be “lost”?
It feels like it just disappears… it ceases to exist.
But what actually happens to lost mail that can’t be delivered or returned to its sender?
It goes to the dead letter office: the USPS Mail Recovery Center.
Your missing mail is in Atlanta. Or, at least, it was at one time, according to an episode of the 99% Invisible podcast.
That’s the first stop. When a letter or package can’t be delivered or returned, it goes to the MRC. There, it’s processed and returned, if possible.
In 2014, the Mail Recovery Center received 88 million items, USPS reports. Of those, it processed 12 million for possible return and was able to give back just 2.5 million.
What Happens to Lost Mail?
Items that can’t be returned are donated, destroyed — or sold at auction.
Like any source for pickers, the Mail Recovery Center auction is full of the kind of stuff that inspired the phrase, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Boxes of old books might hold a sought-after vintage cookbook.
Stacks of perplexing VHS tapes might be of value to some nostalgic collector.
Many people purchase rare items at these auctions and put them up for sale on eBay.
It can be a gamble, but if you’re diligent and have an eye for a deal, you might be able to turn lost mail into cash as a reseller.
Even if you can’t get to Atlanta, you might be in luck. The U.S. Postal Service appears to be cutting out the middlemen in some cases and auctioning items directly from eBay.
Of course, that could also mean stiffer competition, so you have to be creative and know how to find the best deals and resell for the best price.
Note: The only shipping option MRC offers from eBay is USPS, so you’ll probably want to follow its tips to ensure your mail is deliverable.
How Much Money Can You Make?
eBay is the place buyers come to look for rare, unique or unexpected items they can’t find anywhere else.
So you can probably find a buyer for whatever odd items you haul home from the MRC. Some might just take longer than others to surface.
We’ve seen human hair sold on eBay for more than $80.
We’ve seen vintage toys sell for around $50.
We’ve even seen empty boxes sell for up to $30.
Your options are pretty wide open.
Lots of what comes through the MRC appears to be media mail, the 99% Invisible host found when she visited the auction.
Surprises at the MRC Auction
You do want to be on the lookout for surprises, though.
The podcast host spoke to one man who purchased a shoddy painting only to find $5,000 worth of marijuana stuffed into the back!
And one woman had to clear thick dust off each item as she dug through her box… until she reached the bottom and discovered a shattered cremation urn.
People send strange things through the mail.
Lucky for you, apparently, sometimes they become lost. And you might get to be the next stop on their storied journey — and profit from it if you’re smart.
Your Turn: Have you ever considered buying lost mail to resell?
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more.