I live a digital life, so why do banks and other companies still need to know my address?
I live a largely digital existence. I pay all of my bills, receive all of my financial statements, and consume all of my news and entertainment, digitally. Between my iPhone and my iPad, and my laptop, I am virtually paperless. Why then, do I still get mail?
I have moved five times in the past year, from a tiny studio apartment on 135th Street in New York City to a plush grad student dorm in Stanford, California, to a subleased bedroom followed by guest bedroom and eventually a huge four-bedroom third-floor apartment near Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA. My longest stay was nine months, my shortest was two weeks and each time, I’ve dealt with the tedious task of changing my address. The routine always begins with my bank, followed by my cell phone carrier and then one credit card company after another.
Let me first concede that my urban nomadic lifestyle is neither common nor desirable. The average American moves once every five years. Lately, I’m averaging once every 10 weeks. And not everyone can, or would choose to, be so technologically dependent. Unlike me, many find great comfort and function in a non-digital lifestyle, flipping through magazines and books, or opening up an envelope and reading its contents.
But what I’ve come to realize during my year-long game of musical homes is that in spite a devotion to living paperless, I’m still haunted daily by the mail. Even if I wanted to, I can’t really stop getting mail, or more specifically, I can’t stop needing a mailing address. My mailing address has become much more than a physical location where I sleep at night or a place where I receive physical goods. It has become inextricably and unnecessarily linked with my identity.
Paying for a parking ticket online? I need an address. Donating to a nonprofit online? I need an address. Paying my phone bill directly from my iPhone? PayPaling a friend? Betting on sports digitally? Address. Address. Address.
Like video rental stores or compact discs, the mailing address as a form of identification verification is a relic that has long since outlived its use. Many organizations, despite the potential for drastically improved efficiency and cost savings, refuse to allow customers the option to have entirely paperless communications. On every single one of my accounts, I’ve checked the “paperless” statements box. Yet many businesses, notably banks, seem stuck in the past.
I recently needed some documentation from my bank for a student loan. It was a simple request for a three-sentence letter showing the amount of money in one of my accounts. My bank, the same bank with which I had expressed the desire to receive paperless statements, is a huge financial behemoth with tens of thousands of employees and billions of dollars in assets. Yet, it somehow could not manage to email or even fax it to me.
I protested, perhaps too aggressively, with a nice young customer service representative who I’m sure was just toting the company line when she said that because of security purposes, the documentation had to be sent in the mail. Really? “And, by the way, that will take three to five business days.” (In the time I was on the phone with the bank, she could have verified my account information, typed the letter and emailed to me 10 times).
Of course, that’s foolish. Any possible form of documentation can be more efficiently, more securely, more quickly and more cheaply delivered digitally. Forget the “paperless statements” box, I want a box that says “I no longer want our relationship to be physical, only electronic.” Soon, with the rapid growth of mobile payments services (think Google Wallet), my bank won’t even need an address to send me a credit or debit card.
I should only need to provide my address when the transaction involves an actual need to know where I live. Where should you ship my new iPhone? “Why, I live on Main Street.” Need to know where to deliver my new couch? “That’s apartment 3A.” But for everything else, companies can and should be smarter about this.
For some, physical is preferable. I don’t want to strip anyone of that privilege. Smart companies should provide options for an array of preferences while gently “nudging” customers over time towards more efficient, cheaper technology. But paperless, truly paperless, should be among those options.