Every year, the United States Postal Service auctions millions of dollars worth of undeliverable mail, an amount that could likely be far more if the USPS had any idea what it was selling, according to postal service documents.
In 2020, as part of our special project on the USPS, Motherboard filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the USPS for a list of items auctioned by the Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta, Georgia, the USPS’s “lost and found,” a facility where some 67 million pieces of undeliverable mail annually are sent to. If the items are deemed to have a value of greater than $25, sentimental value, or otherwise possess “some material value,” the items are stored in case the USPS receives an inquiry from the person who was supposed to get it. After a period ranging from 30 days to “indefinitely,” the USPS either recycles, destroys, or auctions the item.
But the USPS doesn’t auction the items individually. It contracts with GovDeals, a government surplus auction website, to sell them off in lots. Currently, the Atlanta Surplus Center has 645 lots on auction, with items ranging from gift cards to cell phones to laptops. But mostly the lots contain “general merchandise.” Ironically, the lots must be picked up at the Atlanta facility, as the mail will not mail the lost mail to the winner of an auction.
In response to Motherboard’s request, the USPS said it doesn’t keep much of any information about the auctions at all. “As information, the Postal Service does not have a record of the actual number of items auctioned, the sale prices of those items, nor the sale prices of the individual lots,” the USPS said. The only information it included in the response was an annual breakdown of 2015 through 2019 of the number of lots auctioned and the total revenue from those auctions.
It sure seems like there’s some valuable stuff in some of these lots. For example, this lot of “Trading Cards, Sports Memorabilia, & Novelty” contains approximately 250 pounds of trading cards which have skyrocketed in value during the pandemic. If you look at the pictures, many of the cards are graded highly, rare, or unopened. Just ten decent cards or one great one in the lot could easily net the buyer a profit.
In some cases, the USPS seems to almost go out of its way to cost itself money. For example, it unboxed these seven low-end Windows and Chromebook laptops, but didn’t disclose if they turn on, a fact that would easily make them worth more than the $660 the lot is currently going for.
In this five-year period, the USPS has auctioned off more lots for less money. In 2015, it averaged almost $2,000 per lot, but that yield fell each year, until by 2019 each lot was selling for just $881 on average. A 2020 USPS Inspector General report found inefficiencies and poor item tracking plagued the facility. If nothing else this means big bargains at the USPS Mail Recovery Center.