or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 7/25/10

   July 31st, 2010 Brian Herzog

USPS logoThis question wasn't difficult at all, just surprising. One of our semi-regular patrons, an elderly woman, came over to the desk and asked for help at a computer.

When we got back to where she was working, she explained that she had moved from one end of her retirement complex to the other, and was on the Post Office's website trying to change her address. She was stuck on the first step - the difference between a "permanent" move and a "temporary" move. She felt, at her age (86), she wanted to get a second opinion on how "permanent" I thought her move was. I know she has a good sense of humor, but I honestly couldn't tell if she was kidding this time.

We got her through that step, and I went back to the desk. The whole process is only about five screens, but over the course of the next half-hour, she came back twice more to ask for help. It was a busy day so I wasn't able to stay with her, and usually she's very good on the computer.

However, the last question stumped us both: they required her type in her credit card number, and were going to charge her $1.00 to change her address.

Well, after a half an hour of frustration, that was the last straw. I know you can do change of addresses at the Post Office for free, so she said she was going to go right over to do it the old-fashioned way, and to give them a piece of her mind.

Initially, I thought this was another annoying example of an online place charging service fees or "internet surcharge" to use their website. I see this a lot buying tickets and things online, and to my mind, it seems like a pure scam - buying online should provide a discount, since it saves them effort.

After the patron left, I went back to the website to see if they mentioned this $1 fee earlier in the process. On the first page, I found a not-too-easy-to-read note at the bottom, saying a valid credit card was required - and that you have to change your address with the credit card company before you can change it with the Post Office. It reads:

Note: A valid credit card and a valid email address are required to complete the Online Change of Address process. For your security, the credit card billing address MUST match the address you are moving from or the address you are moving to (for business moves it must match the address you are moving from). If you are unable to use a credit card and a valid email address, you will have the option to print the Change of Address form and then mail or deliver the printed form to your local post office™.

From this, and from the page where you enter your credit card number, it seems like it's more of a security feature, to deter random people from changing the address of other people. However, you can still do it for free with no questions asked using the paper form. There has to be a better way to handle things like this, so that security doesn't impede convenience.

I've got to apply this logic the next time we revamp our library website.

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