USPS Dead Mail (What Is It, Recovering + More)

USPS is a great resource when things run smoothly. You drop off your letters or packages, the postal worker scans them in, and they arrive at their destination in a few short days.

That’s usually what happens, but there are plenty of times when mail doesn’t get where it’s supposed to go.

Every year, millions of packages go missing and are classified as dead mail. If you want to know what USPS does with dead mail, keep reading!

USPS Dead Mail

Dead mail, also called undeliverable mail, cannot be delivered to the addressee or returned to the sender. This usually happens due to a lack of compliance with postal regulations, an incomplete address, or the inability to forward the mail. USPS funnels all undeliverable mail to the Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

If you’re curious about what happens to dead mail, we’ve got the answers here!

What Is Dead Mail?

Dead mail is a colloquial term for any letter or package that USPS can’t deliver to the recipient or return to the sender. USPS refers to this type of mail as undeliverable mail.

There are several reasons why a letter or package will be classified as “dead.” For example, packages with missing or damaged shipping labels will be considered undeliverable and treated as dead mail.

Letters and packages will also be classified this way if they have an incomplete and return address.

Similarly, if USPS cannot forward the mail because both correspondents have moved before the item is delivered, it is considered dead mail. 

What Are Dead Letter Offices?

Dead letter office is a generic term for a facility within a postal service where undeliverable mail is processed. Think of it as the postal service’s lost and found.

In the case of USPS, the official name of this facility is the USPS Mail Recovery Center. It is located in Atlanta, Georgia.

What Does USPS Do With Dead Mail?

What Does USPS Do With Dead Mail?

Undeliverable and unreturnable mail is sent to the USPS Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

What happens next depends on two things. One, whether postal workers can find an address, and two, the item’s value.

If postal workers find an address, the envelope or package is sealed using postal tape or seals or enclosed in plastic bags and delivered. That being said, finding an address is not the norm.

A 2015 audit found that the Mail Recovery Center processed 88 million dead mail items in 2014.

Of these 88 million items, only 2.5 million (about 3%) of these items made it back to their original senders.

Most of the remaining 97% of undeliverable items are destroyed. More specifically, those valued at less than $25 are destroyed to protect customers’ privacy.

Items like postcards, periodicals, and political flyers almost always fall into this category.

Items valued at more than $25 are kept for a few months before they’re auctioned off to the public.

What Are USPS Dead Mail Auctions?

Items valued at $25 or more that end up at USPS’ Mail Recovery Center are put up for auction 90 days after they’re received.

USPS works with a private company called GovDeals to run these auctions. Auctions are held online and happen about every two weeks.

Potential bidders can also make an appointment to visit the facility and check out the items up for auction.

According to a 2015 audit of the Mail Recovery Center, USPS profited $11 million from dead mail items auctioned off in 2014.

How Do I Recover Dead Mail?

If you send something that can’t be delivered for whatever reason, USPS will use the return address and try to get the item back to you.

If that’s not possible, whether because the mail is addressed incorrectly or because there’s no return address, the item will either be handled by your local post office or sent to the Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta.

In the meantime, if your mail has not arrived within 7 days from the send date, you can:

  • Submit a search request in the Missing Mail application
  • Call your Consumer Affairs representative via 1-800-ASK-USPS (1-800-275-8777) and have them complete a search request on your behalf.
  • Visit your local USPS Post Office and have a search request submitted.

How Long Before USPS Mail Is Considered Lost?

You have a specific window of time to declare mail missing. In most cases, you have 7 to 60 days to file a Missing Mail Application.

For more specific information about filing dates, check out the table below.

Mail Type or ServiceWhen to File (from mailing date)
No Sooner ThanNo Later Than
Priority Mail Express7 days60 days
Priority Mail Express

Collect on Delivery

15 days60 days
Registered Mail15 days60 days
Registered Mail

Collect on Delivery

15 days60 days
Priority Mail and Other Insured Mail15 days60 days
Collect on Delivery15 days60 days
APO/FPO Priority Mail Express Military21 days180 days
APO/FPO/DPO Insured Mail and Registered Mail (Priority Mail, First-Class Mail, SAM, or PAL)45 days1 year
APO/FPO/DPO Insured Mail (Surface Only)75 days1 year

To know more about USPS, you can also see our posts on whether or not USPS stamps expire, how long does USPS holds packages, and if USPS tracking numbers expire.

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Marques Thomas

Marques Thomas graduated with a MBA in 2011. Since then, Marques has worked in the retail and consumer service industry as a manager, advisor, and marketer. Marques is also the head writer and founder of

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