SAN FRANCISCO -- If you've ever sent mail to the federal government, you may wonder if it will ever reach the right person.
What you may not realize is what happens to mail after you send it to the government. It led to a strange experience for one Californian.
For Lou Ann Bassan of San Francisco, it seemed like a page out of a spy novel. "It was really very surreal, like I cannot believe this is happening... maybe it's a secret government program..." she laughed.
It began when Bassan filed a petition with the U.S. tax court to dispute a big IRS penalty.
She paid the $60 filing fee with a check made out for $60. But a couple of weeks later, the court sent the check right back to her.
To her amazement, it was totally blank. All the ink on her check had disappeared.
"The date's not there, the payee's not there, the amount's not there... my first thought was, 'Oh my god I sent the check and I forgot to fill it out,'" Bassan said.
But she didn't forget. The tax court notice says the mail had been "irradiated" - zapped with radiation.
And that caused the ink on her check to disappear.
"I can't believe this. Irradiated? I've never heard of any such thing. It's like something from a sci-fi movie or a spy whodunnit," she said.
Everything she had written is gone, except for a faint shadow you might be able to see if you looked very carefully.
"If I tilted it just right... I can barely make out 'Clerk, United States Tax Court,'" Bassan said.
The notice from the court said Bassan had to find a pen that resists irradiation, and write another check .
"A pen resistant to radiation? What is that?" she asked.
She went online and found some pens with radiated ink. But they cost $254 for a pack of 100.
"I'm not gonna go buy a special pen just to write one check. I refuse," she said. "So then I thought, 'Oh, Michael Finney!'"
Our sister station KGO's 7 On Your Side learned the postal service irradiates mail addressed to government offices in Washington D.C. -- ever since the big anthrax scare of 2001. That's when criminals were sending envelopes with deadly anthrax powder through the U.S. mail.
Radiation would kill harmful bacteria and viruses in case of future attacks.
The postal service acknowledged radiated mail can become brittle or yellowed. The tax court tells us ink disappears from its mail "on occasion."
Bassan says it shouldn't be this hard to dispute an IRS penalty.
"My own government is irradiating the mail and has erased my information. Why is this happening to me?" she asked.
Well, this story does have an oddly happy ending. Before Bassan could send in a new check, the IRS reconsidered her case, and waived that penalty. She didn't need to go to court, didn't need to pay a filing fee. Thanks to the disappearing ink, she saved $60 - and a story that could make for a good spy novel.
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