I Was a Mail Carrier for 20+ Years—Here’s What I Know About You
"I'm not looking through your mail, but that doesn't mean I don't notice things."
Worried that your mail carrier knows more than they should? You can forget the tired stereotype of the busybody mail carrier. “We don’t read your mail, not even the outside, unless something is really off,” says Nigel, 62, a letter carrier with 24 years of service, who declined to share his last name for privacy reasons. “We’re too busy. We have too many things to deliver and too many stops to make to get into your business.”
That said, the United States Postal Service has nearly 7,000 letter carriers who deliver 484.8 million pieces of mail and packages every day. So even if your mail carrier isn’t the nosy type, Nigel says there’s still plenty of opportunities to see some things—and boy, do they! We asked Nigel and his friend Jeff, who has worked for the USPS for nearly 30 years, to share what it’s really like being a mailman and what they’ve learned about their customers.
You’re on vacation
Placing a hold on your mail delivery is one of the top ways experts recommend to protect your home. A pileup of mail is a sign to would-be thieves that you’re not home. However, holding your mail also alerts your mail carrier you’ll be gone for an extended period of time—and that’s a good thing, Nigel says. “I always take extra care to look out for the houses when I know people are gone,” he says. “I just take a quick look when I drive by and notice if anything looks wrong—and if it does I will call the police.”
You’re involved in a hit-and-run
“Probably the thing I’ve seen most of, that is out of the ordinary, are car accidents,” Nigel says. “I drive hours every day and so I’ve seen so many accidents where cars hit each other or hit pedestrians or do a hit-and-run.” He keeps a notepad handy and writes down the license plates involved to give to the police and has even been called a few times to testify in court about what he’s seen, he says. Crime is just one of the many secrets mail carriers know about you.
As many moms-to-be can attest, it seems like baby formula companies know you’re pregnant almost before you do. It’s likely you end up on a mailing list through a form you fill out from a pregnancy magazine, online, or at your doctor’s office, but however it happens, your mail carrier will notice. “Companies send out whole packages of bottles of formula samples and they are labeled all over with pictures of babies and the brand name so it’s really obvious what they are,” Jeff says. “I never say anything, even if I know that customer pretty well, but I do think ‘congratulations’ and say a little prayer for them.” In addition, you will likely start getting thick stacks of coupons for baby items, maternity magazines, diaper samples, and other items that make it clear that if you’re not expecting yet, you’re definitely thinking about it.
You’ve just had a new baby
It’s getting less frequent these days as new parents become more safety conscious but it’s still fairly common to see pink or blue balloons tied to a mailbox for a baby shower or to announce the birth of a new little one, Nigel says. “Personally, it makes me happy,” he says. “I am a dad and grandfather myself and I love seeing people celebrate a new baby and seeing families grow.” This is just one of the 23 things mail carriers wish they could tell you.
You’re in trouble with the law
While they’re not going through your mail, sometimes an odd piece will catch your letter carrier’s eye. “Court documents look different than normal mail and you know what they look like in your area,” Jeff says. “I try not to think too much about it because it could mean anything but if you get a lot of official-looking documents and then your mail is on hold or changed I might think you’ve gone to jail.” And don’t ignore parking tickets, failing to pay them can get you more than angry letters.
Nigel adds that he has seen people being arrested while doing his route. “Once I came to a house that was taped off as a crime scene. The officer there just told me to give him the person’s mail so I did. I never knew if he kept it for evidence or handed it to the person or left it on their table or something,” he says.
You’re selling drugs
No, it’s not the neighborhood or the presence of seedy characters hanging around your house that mark you as a drug dealer (although those things don’t help), rather it’s the amount and type of packages you send, along with the strange ways you pay for them that are big tip-offs, Jeff says. “I figured out a guy on my route was probably a drug dealer because he would send packages with dozens of stamps taped to them instead of a printed label,” he says. “He didn’t want to take them into the post office or go through our online system because he didn’t want to leave a digital trail.” Sure enough, the man was busted for making, selling, and shipping MDMA pills, he says.
You’re buying drugs
Similarly, there are signs when a person is buying drugs through the mail, Nigel says. “I’ve only ever had to turn in a handful of suspicious pieces of mail to the inspectors and it’s all been because they’ve appeared to have some kind of bad substance leaking through or smelled like drugs,” he says, adding that this is rare as packages go through screening long before they ever get in his hands. “But if I deliver a lot of packages to you and they never have a return address I might suspect something criminal is happening.”
You got a new dog
Postal workers on foot often carry pepper spray in their bags to deal with aggressive dogs so they are highly aware of any pups along their route and they notice when a new one shows up. “Sometimes I’ll hear barking where there wasn’t any before or I’ll see a new ‘beware of dog’ sign,” Nigel says. “Every once in a while someone will bring the dog out to meet me so we can be on friendly terms. I love that. It makes my whole day. Honestly, I’m more worried about running into bad people than bad dogs.” Find out the real reason some dogs seem to hate mail carriers.
You have a kid graduating from high school
High school seniors may be the one group that gets more mail than pregnant women. Colleges from around the country send large, glossy flyers advertising their programs to prospective freshmen. “I didn’t go to college so when I see those come through for a kid, I am excited for them,” Jeff says. Other tip-offs you’ve got a high school senior are signs in your front yard, writing or decorations on your car, and balloons or signs for grad parties, he adds.
You’re having an affair
When you work the same route day after day you get used to what’s normal in the neighborhood—and what’s not, Nigel says. “There have been times I’ve suspected someone’s cheating because I’ll see people kind of sneaking around or looking guilty,” he says, adding that he’s called the police before because he wasn’t sure if the person was a lover or a burglar. “I also see a lot when you answer the door to accept delivery of a package, and sometimes I can tell I’m not the man they were expecting to see at that moment,” he says.
You’re getting a divorce
Splitting your assets during a divorce can be tricky and your mail is no exception to that, Nigel says. “People have to decide what bills are going to be in whose name and when one of them moves out, they have to set a forwarding address. If you have a name card in your mailbox we can see when that is changed as well, although that’s usually just a last name,” he says. “Also, sometimes I notice if a car that I’m used to seeing isn’t there anymore.”
You’re a kind person
“It’s not expected or necessary and it won’t affect the quality of service I give you but I do appreciate when people leave me little gifts or notes around the holidays,” Nigel says. Cash, gift cards, chocolate, and wine are popular gifts although he says the recent trend of leaving out a basket of snacks and drinks on your porch for delivery people is pretty great. “When I see those baskets, I know someone really kind lives there and they’re thinking about other people,” he says. Before you rush out to buy your mail carrier a gift, find out what the legality of doing so is, first.