How to deal with wrongly delivered post

Carlton Boyce / 28 September 2016 ( 14 August 2019 )

What should you do if you receive post that isn’t meant for you?

It’s happened to us all. You’re sifting through the day’s post at the kitchen table when you come across a letter that isn’t for you. Receiving someone else’s post is at best mildly annoying but could, at worst, signify the start of an identity theft scam.

Of course, the chances are that it has been posted through your door or letter box as a result of human error, so what should you do in the event that someone has simply made an innocent mistake? The answer depends on the specifics of the situation...

Post that's delivered to the right address but that person doesn’t live there now

This generally happens when someone has moved and either hasn’t bothered to redirect their post or the redirection has expired. In this case, the course of action is simple and straightforward.

If you know their new address:

• First cross out the address but not the name

• Write “No longer living at this address, please forward to” and then write in the person’s new address

• Finally, pop it in the nearest post box and Royal Mail will redeliver it to the new address at no extra cost.

If you don’t know their new address:

Then the process is equally straightforward: 

• Cross out the address but not the name

• Write “Not known at this address, please return to sender”

• Pop it in the post box for Royal Mail to deal with.

If there is a return address on the outside of the item Royal Mail will redeliver it to the sender free of charge. However, if there is no return address visible they won’t be able to do this and the item will be sent to the National Return Centre in Belfast where the staff will open the package to try and establish the sender’s address.

If they can’t find out who sent it they will hold it for up to 4 months to allow time for the sender to query whether they are holding it. After that time the letter or package is almost certainly lost forever, which demonstrates why it is so important to put a return address on everything – preferably on the outside!

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A letter or parcel delivered to the right address but the person never lived there

This generally happens because of human error on the part of the sender, or because that person lived there so long ago that you have never heard of them before. Royal Mail, along with almost every other courier, deliver letters and parcels to an address rather than to a person, so they won’t take any action other than to deliver it even if they know you well and know very well that no one of that name lives with you.

Of course, post delivered under these circumstances might also signify the start of an identity theft scam. However, I wouldn’t panic if this is the first letter or parcel that you’ve received with a name that you haven’t heard of. I would simply:

• Cross out the address but not the person’s name

• Write “Not known at this address, please return to sender”

• Pop it in the post box or hand it over to the staff at the nearest Post Office and let Royal Mail return it to the sender.

Tips to help you know your consumer rights if your deliveries and purchases fail to arrive on time.

Post with the right address but delivered to your house by mistake

This happens when the postie makes a mistake. All you need to do is to write ‘Misdelivered’ on the front, pop it back in the nearest post box and Royal Mail will deliver it to the correct address.

I’ve received a card saying that a parcel is being held for my address, but in someone else’s name

You might come home and find a card on the doormat telling you that the postman or woman has tried to deliver a parcel to your address but you weren’t in. If the parcel isn’t intended for you then you don’t need to do anything; Royal Mail advises you to simply ignore the card and they (or the courier company) will automatically return the parcel to the sender after the retention period has expired.

What is the parcel delivery scam?

Can’t I just throw the letter in the bin if it isn’t for me?

No, you can’t. In this case you might fall foul of the Postal Services Act 2000, which states that:

(1) A person commits an offence if, without reasonable excuse, he - 

(a) intentionally delays or opens a postal packet in the course of its transmission by post.

So, if you throw a letter in the bin you might be committing an offence. If you are found guilty you could face a fine of up to £5,000 or even spend up to six months in jail. Throwing letters away is also morally questionable as well as illegal, so please do the right thing; after all, it won’t take you very long!

It looks interesting - can I keep it?

No, sadly you can't. If it wasn't addressed to you, then even if it's delivered to your home, you're morally obliged to do your best to get it to the correct person, or at the very least, send it back from whence it came. Essentially, think about what you'd like someone else to do if they accidentally received your post, and do that. 

Your consumer questions answered 

I bought some DVDs on eBay but they were delivered to the wrong house. The seller refuses to refund me, saying Royal Mail is responsible. Should I chase Royal Mail, the seller or eBay for a refund?

Legally, the onus is on the vendor. Sarah Garner, a solicitor with DAS Law in Bristol, explains, ‘The DVD seller has an obligation to ensure the items are delivered to your address. The goods remain their risk until they come into the physical possession of the consumer, so you should contact the seller to provide you with replacement goods or a refund. As they have paid Royal Mail to provide a service, they should pursue them for breach of contract if they failed to provide the contracted service.

If the vendor has a tracking number, they can chase the goods via Royal Mail. However, if the seller is being difficult, try eBay’s Money Back Guarantee (eMBG) scheme. Buyers will either get their items or a refund. The only caveat is you need to have paid using PayPal. It works as follows: contact the seller within 30 days of the delivery date. If they don’t fix things within eight days, you should tell eBay. It will refund you through PayPal. 

By Jo Carlowe, consumer rights journalist

Can I keep goods delivered to me by mistake?

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.