International Reply Coupons, as a substitute for mint stamps, provide easy return postage throughout the world. It's a cinch to send a domestic SASEs -- just lick a few stamps and shove a smaller envelope inside the letter. Not so easy on an international scale, as changing postage rates in individual countries combine with the relative inaccessibility of certain stamps, creating a massive headache for small-scale overseas correspondence.

Enter the IRC, for short. IRC's are small certificates redeemable for one unit of unregistered airmail or the minimum cost for one unit of overseas priority mail. The United States Postal Service values each IRC at one ounce of airmail. IRC's are now valued at EUR 1,80 or US$1.75. As evidenced by the euro's acceleration past the US dollar, Americans should expect a rapid inflation of IRC prices in 2005. IRCs are only worth $0.80 of American postage when redeemed at a domestic post office, so the coupons are quite expensive for their relative value. Nevertheless, IRC's provide hassle free correspondence, even if the transactions cost an arm and a leg.

IRCs hold a chequered past. Charles Ponzi based his 1920 swindle on the importation and resale of IRCs. Ponzi discovered that 66 IRCs could be purchased in Italy for the equivalent of a US dollar, a significantly higher return over domestic rates. Flipping the devalued Italian IRCs for American stamps, Ponzi plied his fantastic earnings on a gullible Boston. Setting up his strangely named "Security and Exchange Company", Ponzi diverted his massive investments into dubious bank accounts. Devoting little effort to stamp investments when the moolah came gushing in, Ponzi pried on the penniless shifting stamps in a shell game.

Nowadays IRCs are used in many hobbies including geneaology, philately (stamp collecting), bootleg music swapping, seed cooperatives, not least ham radio and shortwave listening. In recent years IRCs have been used as a form of stamp currency. For example, if a radio listener wished to receive a DX bulletin, he or she would mail the club a few IRCs to defray shipment. Many radio clubs would purchase IRCs wholesale and sell the chits back to members at cost. Given the astronomical adjusted price of IRCs, many hobbyists have switched to mint stamps and green stamps (bank notes) as cheaper but more risky alternatives to IRCs. Remember that many countries do not accept IRCs or cannot process the notes directly. Given the dicey nature of IRC swapping, many forgo the system altogether.

Here in the US many post offices ignore IRCs, refusing to stock them or feigning ignorance when asked about them. Moreover, the IRCs must be stamped in a certain way for overseas redemption (please refer to the UPU website below for illustrations.) I must go to the Main Post Office in Manhattan for IRCs. Given time contraints, I'd rather throw a few bills in tinfoil and hope for the best.

Citation

http://www.upu.int/irc/en/index.shtml -- the Universal Postal Union

http://www.forbes.com/ceonetwork/2004/04/19/0419bookreview.html -- general information on Ponzi history

http://pe.usps.gov/text/imm/welcome.htm -- the USPS International Mail Manual outlining American IRC policy.

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