In this day of age, it's easy to get a prospect's address with so many online databases available. For example, a college sending a promotional mail to a student. A freelancer sending physical mails to potential clients. A founder sending mails to users in that field.

Does and how does CAN-SPAM apply to situations like these? Especially, I'm wondering how the unsubscribe requirement works. Send a mail back to unsubscribe?


4 Answers 4


CAN-SPAM applies to "commercial electronic mail", which is defined as "any electronic mail message the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service". A physical piece of mail would not fall under that purview.

For what it is worth, the Deceptive Mail Prevention and Enforcement Act is probably the closest parallel although, as per the name, it focuses on deceptive mailings, not on unsolicited ones.

  • ...but under a lot of other legislation
    – Trish
    Aug 22, 2023 at 19:12
  • @Trish: True. :) And perhaps a better answer would answer the question they meant to ask.
    – SCD
    Aug 22, 2023 at 19:13
  • Interesting. So is there nothing that governs marketing/commercial/unsolicited physical mails? If not, then I'm surprised that I'm not physically being spammed into oblivion.
    – No Name
    Aug 23, 2023 at 6:06

I hate junk mail in my mailbox. While CAN-SPAM certainly won't apply, you can refuse the mail.

Just write "refused" on it, put it back in the mailbox, and raise the flag. The mailman must take it away.

That way you don't incur the cost of disposing of it, and the USPS gets to eat the cost of having to deliver it and retrieve it... and probably to dispose of it or return it to the sender.

This is outlined in the US Postal Service Domestic Mail Manual, section 508.1.1.3, "Refusal After Delivery" and it states:

1.1.3 Refusal After Delivery

After delivery, an addressee may mark a mailpiece “Refused” and return it within a reasonable time, if the piece or any attachment is not opened. Mail that may not be refused and returned unopened under this provision may be returned to the sender only if it is enclosed in a new envelope or wrapper with a correct address and new postage. The following may not be refused and returned postage-free after delivery:

a. Pieces sent as Registered Mail, insured, Certified Mail, collect on delivery (COD), and return receipt for merchandise.

b. Response mail to the addressee’s sales promotion, solicitation, announcement, or other advertisement that was not refused when offered to the addressee.

I've been doing this for more than 15 years. I basically pick what I consider valuable out of the mailbox, mark everything else "refused", close the box and raise the flag. The next day it's gone.

One time the mailman left me a note telling me to stop. I left him a note quoting the postal code. No more issues.

While this won't "unsubscribe" you from any lists, there is a certain satisfaction in making someone in the chain of delivery pay for the junk ending up in your mailbox.

For unsubscribing, there are some commercial associations marketers use that maintain do-not-mail lists in an effort to try and keep consumers happy. There are a few of them, but here's a couple of places to start:




You have a right to prohibit any advertisement mailed to you by declaring it sexually arousing.

39 USC § 3008 allows you to file an order to stop the mailing of any "advertisement which offers for sale matter which the addressee in his sole discretion believes to be erotically arousing or sexually provocative". This is called a prohibitory order and is done by filing USPS Form 1500. The sender is then prohibited from mailing further advertisements to the addressee.

While this may make sense for adult advertising, and the USPS makes it sound like it's for that, what is important is a case, Rowan v. Post Office Dept., 397 U.S. 728 (1970). Here, the Supreme Court determined that the sole judge of what is sexually provocative is the addressee. The USPS, nor the sender have any power in this matter.

Therefore, any advertisement which offers something for sale can be the subject of a prohibitory order.


You have no right to opt out of physical junk mail

The CAN-SPAM Act and similar legislation in other jurisdictions only applies to electronic communications. The reason for this is that these are effectively costless for the sender: once the message is written, it costs nothing to send to as many people as they can.

Physical mail is not costless, each extra recipient requires paying for printing and delivery by the sender. As such, it is inherently self-limiting.

Now, you might think this is a distinction without a difference but if you had had an email address in the late 90’s you would know that 99% of your inbox was spam, compared to 50-60% of your physical mail box. That’s why it was enacted.

  • Also, arguably, the government profits from physical spam, since the postage paid goes to them.
    – SCD
    Aug 22, 2023 at 21:41
  • 1
    @SCD, btw, in the U.S., in recent times the postal service is financially independent from the government, even though it is controlled by the government... Still conceivably a profit motive. :) Aug 22, 2023 at 22:16
  • 2
    Another answer that does not actually engage with the law, and predictably gets the answer wrong. One can indeed opt out of bulk mail from basically any sender.
    – bdb484
    Aug 23, 2023 at 2:23
  • @paulgarrett The US Postal Service doesn't "profit" from mail services for which it has a monopoly. Like other regulated utilities, an oversight agency (the Postal Regulatory Commission) sets price of services based on recovery of allowable costs. Private utilities, like power and landline companies, can add a percent profit on these costs which are returned to shareholders. The USPS cannot.
    – user71659
    Aug 25, 2023 at 4:59

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