It's in the mail: But you'd never know it

 "On August 26," Rey Barry's email began, "I sent a registered and insured letter from Charlottesville to California. The letter contained nearly $2,000 in postal money orders." There was a bar code on the ticket, so Barry assumed it was scanned for tracking. "But when I checked the post office web tracking site for it, and when the recipient checked, the number was not in the system."

Barry called the postal service's 800 number on August 31. "The staffer tried to track my mail and said the number was not in the system. She also stated that prior to July 1, 2002, neither international nor domestic registered mail scans from Charlottesville actually made it into the system," but that after July 1, scans from domestic mail were supposed to.

In light of what he'd learned, Barry wondered whether the bar code was just window dressing instead of the service he'd been charged for: Registered mail costs $7.50 in addition to the postage and any other services the customer adds on. Of course, Barry could have sent his letter overnight via FedEx or UPS; the cost would have been competitive, and he could have tracked it from the first moment.

Here's the good news: Barry's letter arrived at its destination on September 3. But why couldn't the post office, in the days between August 26 and September 3, confirm that the letter was even in its system?

I called the 800 number and spoke to Amanda in customer service, who explained that the only information about registered mail available on the postal service's "Track and Confirm" web page is the date an item was delivered not the date it was mailed. In the next breath she explained that registered mail is the most secure way to mail something, as it's kept under lock and key at all times. Apparently the postal service doesn't realize that for that very reason (i.e, that it's the method some consumers use to mail such things as $2,000 in postal orders), it might be nice to see evidence that the item really does exist.

I decided to test the system for myself. On September 17, I went to the Barracks Road station (the same one Barry had used) and sent a letter to my sister Margaret in California, via registered mail.

Is it true, I asked, that registered mail from Charlottesville isn't actually scanned into the database? Yes and no, I was told: Because Charlottesville isn't yet on the POS (point of service) system, registered mail doesn't get entered until it arrives at Dulles.

I wasn't surprised, therefore, when all attempts to track my letter (by typing in the number from the bar code) were fruitless; I could only hope that it hadn't been misplaced on its way to Dulles.

I spoke with Dionne Montague, manager of consumer affairs and claims in Richmond, who promised to find out whether registered mail from Charlottesville really doesn't get scanned into the tracking system until it reaches Dulles.

The following day a clerk in her department called, and finally, thanks to a three-way conversation with an employee in Charlottesville, I got the details.

Starting in January, when the POS system comes to Charlottesville, registered mail will be scanned into the system right at the counter. Until then, in-state registered mail gets processed at the post office annex on Airport Road, and out-of-state registered mail receives its electronic blessing at Dulles.

My letter to California, by the way, was delivered on September 25; but until the number finally showed up on the postal service's website September 26, I had no assurance that it even existed.

Having experienced this somewhat unsettling system, here's my suggestion to the postal service: Sink a little more money into that website, and let us track registered mail from the second it enters the system instead of making us wait till it exits.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.