UPDATED: February 11, 2020
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You’ve seen them bulking up your mailboxes: envelops hyping thousands in sweepstakes, marvelous free vacation trips, and get rich quick schemes, urging you to fork over your money. Or those envelopes that deceptively look like mail from a government agency and are delivered by the US Postal Service. Beyond being wasteful and unsolicited, it may be wrongful and unlawful.
Mail fraud is a federal offense. Con artists who have committed mail fraud have used the U.S. Postal system to carry out schemes or used artifice to defraud; they have misrepresented themselves via the mail in a criminal attempt to obtain money or items of value. The US Code, regarding mail fraud, defines the phrase “scheme or artifice to defraud” to include any attempt to “deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.”
U.S. Postal Inspectors investigate any crime in which the U.S. mail is used to further a scheme — whether it originated in the mail, by telephone, or on the Internet. The use of the U.S. Mail is what makes it mail fraud. It might come in the form of a postcard that tells of a “free” gift that is yours for the cost of shipping and handling. It might be a solicitation that looks like an invoice. It might be a letter from an “estate locator” notifying you of an unclaimed inheritance from a long-lost relative (and of a $30 fee for producing an “estate report” with the details). The list goes on and on.
A conviction for mail fraud amounts to enhanced penalties for the criminal activity. The added punitive action is a result of the crime’s exploitation of the US Postal Service, regardless of how large a part the mail system played in the scheme. In many cases, the law also applies to private or commercial interstate carriers. Federal mail fraud statutes are frequently used to bring about separate federal prosecution for crimes that would otherwise be matters of state jurisdiction.
In the case of frauds and phony swindles, section 1341 of the US Code states that if anyone involved in a scheme to defraud or counterfeit, etc., “places in any post office or authorized depository for mail matter” or otherwise uses or causes to be used the Postal Service, that person shall be fined, imprisoned for not more than 20 years, or both. If the violation affects a financial institution, the punishment is a very hefty fine of not more than $1,000,000, imprisonment for not more than 30 years, or both.
If the Postal Service is used to promote such a scheme, section 1342 provides that just the use of a fictitious name or address is punishable by a fine and up to five years in prison.
Those who attempt or conspire to commit these crimes – as with the similar crimes of wire fraud, bank fraud, securities fraud, and health care fraud — are subject to the same penalties as those who actually succeed in committing the offenses.
The US Postal Inspection Service has issued Publication 281 which is a helpful read on how to protect yourself against fraudulent con artists.
If you are a victim of mail scams, there is a process in place to deal with them. You can contact your nearest Postal Inspector or file a complaint on-line.
If you are under investigation for, or facing charges of, mail fraud, contact a criminal defense lawyer who specializes in mail fraud to protect your rights.