What Is Mail Fraud? The Law, Penalties, Examples, And Other Related Crimes

by ECL Writer
Mail Fraud

Mail fraud is a criminal offense that involves using the postal service or other mail carriers to deceive or defraud individuals or organizations. This type of fraud has been around for centuries and has evolved with the times, adapting to changes in technology and communication methods. Today, mail fraud takes many forms, from fake charity solicitations to investment scams to identity theft. The consequences of mail fraud can be severe, ranging from financial losses to damage to personal or professional reputations.

In this post, Eastcoastlaws.com will explore the basics of mail fraud, including what it is, how it works, and what you can do to protect yourself. We will also discuss some real-life examples of mail fraud and examine the legal consequences of committing this type of crime. Whether you’re a victim of mail fraud or simply want to learn more about this common form of criminal activity, this article will provide you with valuable insights and information.

What Is Mail Fraud?

Mail fraud is a criminal offense that involves the use of the United States Postal Service (USPS) or private mail carriers to commit a fraudulent scheme or scam. Mail fraud occurs when an individual or organization intentionally uses the mail to deceive others for financial gain. without one of the four, the crime cannot be considered mail fraud:

  • Fraudulent Scheme-There was a scheme in place to deprive another or business of property, money, or honest services for example trying to obtain trade secrets via the mail.
  • There was intent by the defendant to defraud
  • Material Misrepresentation of the Truth
  • The defendant used the mail system to defraud

Over the years, we have seen a lot of postal fraud schemes, including sweepstakes fraud and fake charity. Many of these scams rely on marketing or religion to pique the victim’s interest in something they might otherwise find troubling. In some late-night infomercials I’ve watched, a preacher offers me some “Miracle Spring Water” in exchange for a donation.

Even though this isn’t against the law because it provides something and is protected by religion, let’s be honest: the miracle spring water just taps water, and he is soliciting funds. This would be regarded as mail fraud under any other conditions (i.e., outside of religion).

Examples Of Mail Fraud May Include

  • Sending fake invoices or bills in the mail to trick recipients into paying for goods or services they never received
  • Promising a prize or award in exchange for payment, when no such prize or award exists
  • Soliciting donations for a fake charity or non-existent cause
  • Offering fraudulent investment opportunities through the mail
  • Using the mail to facilitate a pyramid scheme or other fraudulent business venture

Mail fraud is a serious offense that can result in fines, imprisonment, and other criminal penalties. If you believe you have been a victim of mail fraud, you should report the incident to the USPS or the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Federal Law That Governs Mail Fraud: 18 U.S.C. 1341§ 1341 states

“Whoever, having devised or intending to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises or sell, dispose of ,loan, exchange, alter, give away, distribute, supply, or furnish or procure for unlawful use any counterfeit or spurious coin, obligation, security, or other article, or anything represented to be or intimated or held out to be such counterfeit or spurious article, for the purpose of executing such scheme or artifice or attempting so to do, places in any post office or authorized depository for mail matter, any matter or thing whatever to be sent or delivered by the Postal Service, or deposits or causes to be deposited any matter or thing whatever to be sent or delivered by any private or commercial interstate carrier, or takes or receives therefrom, any such matter or thing, or knowingly causes to be delivered by make or such carrier according to the direction thereon, or at the place at which it is directed to be delivered by the person to whom it is addresses, any such matter or thing, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years or both. If the violation occurs in relation to, or involving any benefit authorized, transported transmitted, transferred, disbursed, or paid in connection with, a presidentially declared major disaster or emergency, or affects a financial institution, such person shall be fined not more than $1 million dollars or imprisoned more than 30 years”.

Basically, it’s unlawful to send anything illicit through the mail, including stealing letters to steal identities or money, and the consequences are significantly heavier if you steal money from an emergency fund.

What Types of Schemes Are Considered Mail Fraud?

Common fraud schemes charged under mail fraud include:

  • consumer fraud
  • stock, securities, and investment fraud
  • insurance fraud
  • charity and marketing scams (many targeting elderly victims)
  • election fraud
  • bribery and kickback schemes, and
  • real estate schemes

Possible Racketeering or RICO Charges

A person accused of mail fraud faces the possibility of both a racketeering accusation as well as a felony conviction for that act, which carries a heavy fine and jail term. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (often referred to as “RICO”) allows the prosecution to file additional charges if the defendant acted in conjunction with anyone else. If found guilty of RICO, the offender faces harsher fines and prison sentences.

What Doesn’t Count as Mail Fraud?

Although mail fraud is a felony with broad application, it is not always relevant. For instance, you haven’t committed postal fraud if you use the phone or email to coerce someone into sending you money and the offense never involves the use of the mail. However, a number of additional federal fraud crimes may also apply to fraud schemes that don’t involve mail, like wire fraud and computer fraud. (Wire fraud is sometimes referred to as the little brother of mail fraud.)

How Does The Prosecutor Prove Mail Fraud?

In a mail fraud prosecution, the prosecutor’s task is quite simple; all that is needed is for the prosecutor to show that the defendant had a fraud plan and used the mail (or other interstate means) to carry it out.

Did the Defendant Have the Scheme to Defraud?

The offender must first demonstrate to the jury that he or she had a plot or plan to defraud someone for money, property, or “honest services.” Fraud is defined by the courts as behavior that violates a moral or legal obligation to another person and results in harm. Fraud, for instance, involves replacing a customer’s ordered item with one of lower quality. However, because there are so many different types of fraud and the notion is so clear, courts haven’t provided us with more detailed definitions. One person stated plainly that “to cheat is to defraud in less polite language.” (United States v. Foshee, 578 F2d 629, 632 (1978).)

Honest services: A fraudulent scheme may involve more than just the misappropriation of money, assets, or tangible objects. It is sufficient to deprive a victim of the value of its sincere services. For instance, an employee has violated his employer’s obligation to provide “honest services” to individuals with whom he transacts business by allocating contracts to his best friend rather than the lowest bidder.

Victims: The government need not show that the scheme actually caused victims harm or that it was even fully executed in a mail fraud trial. Furthermore, it is not even required that the scam victim was aware of it. It suffices to have a scheme and fraudulent purpose.

Did the Defendant Use U.S. Mail or Private Delivery Services to Further the Scheme?

The fact that prosecutors can easily prove this element of the crime is maybe one of the reasons why federal mail fraud is referred to as “the prosecutor’s best friend.” Any interstate distribution mode, including U.S. mail, is acceptable. It’s not necessary for mailing to be a crucial component of the plan; it can be an optional one. It is sufficient for the government to show that mailing or depositing the item at a collection point was an eventual element of the scheme rather than having to show that the defendant actually deposited anything with the delivery service or in the mail. Even “mailing” can be demonstrated by the prosecutor by citing standard office mailing practices.

Legal Penalties For Committing Mail Fraud

Mail fraud is a serious offense that can result in significant penalties. The penalties for mail fraud may vary depending on the specific circumstances of the case, including the amount of money involved, the number of victims, and the defendant’s criminal history.

Federal Prison

The penalties for mail fraud are federal in nature because it is a federal offense. If you are found guilty of routine mail fraud, you could receive the following punishment:

  • Up to 20 years in Federal prison
  • A fine to be determined by the judge

If the mail fraud is related to federal disaster relief funds or involves a bank or other financial institution then the sentence could be:

  • Up to 30 years in federal prison
  • And up to a fine of $1,000,000

In all cases, the court may order the defendant to pay restitution to the victims


Convictions for mail fraud may also include a probationary period. In lieu of serving time in prison, a person sentenced to probation must adhere to certain court requirements for a certain period of time, usually one to three years or more. These requirements restrict the person’s freedoms by, among other things, compelling the probationer to frequently report to a probation monitor, submit to random home searches or drug testing, refrain from interacting with known offenders, and refrain from committing other offenses. If a criminal breaks one of their probationary obligations, they risk serving their whole federal prison term.

Fines, Restitution, and Forfeiture

The fines for mail fraud are likewise very significant. A punishment of up to $250,000 can be imposed for a single count of mail fraud conviction. Fines of up to $1 million are conceivable for fraud involving financial institutions or federal disaster relief.

Restitution is part of the sentencing when a mail fraud operation is successful in stealing property or inflicting harm on a victim. The victims receive restitution money so they can recoup the losses they sustained as a result of the scam. When probation is granted, restitution payments are made a requirement of the sentence in addition to fines. The federal government can also confiscate any proceeds of the crime through the forfeiture process in civil or criminal court.

What Are Rhe Defenses Against The Mail Fraud Charges?

Defenses against mail fraud charges can be complex and depend on the specific circumstances of each case. Here are some examples of defenses that may be used to challenge the validity of the charges:

  • Lack of Intent: To prove mail fraud, the prosecution must show that the defendant had the intent to commit fraud. If the defendant did not have the intent to deceive or defraud the victim, they may argue that they did not commit mail fraud.
  • Lack of Knowledge: The defendant may argue that they did not know they were engaging in fraudulent activity or that they were unaware that the mail they sent or received as part of a fraudulent scheme.
  • Entrapment: If the defendant was induced by law enforcement or another person to commit mail fraud that they would not have otherwise committed, they may argue that they were entrapped and therefore not guilty.
  • Mistake: If the defendant made an honest mistake, such as a clerical error or a miscommunication, they may argue that they did not have the intent to commit mail fraud.
  • Insufficient Evidence: If the prosecution does not have enough evidence to prove that the defendant committed mail fraud beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant may argue that they are not guilty.
  • Constitutional Violations: If the defendant’s rights were violated during the investigation or prosecution of the case, such as a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, they may argue that the charges should be dismissed.

It is important to note that the success of these defenses will depend on the specific facts and circumstances of each case. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help defendants determine which defenses may be appropriate for their case and develop a strategy to challenge the charges.

How Mail Fraud Affects Victims

Mail fraud is a type of fraud that occurs when scammers use the mail to deceive and defraud individuals or businesses. This can take various forms, such as fake lotteries, investment scams, or phishing schemes. The consequences of mail fraud can be devastating for victims, both financially and emotionally.

Victims of mail fraud often lose significant amounts of money, as scammers may ask for personal information, request payment for nonexistent goods or services, or encourage investment in fake opportunities. In some cases, victims may also become unwitting accomplices in the fraud, such as when they are recruited to reship goods purchased with stolen credit cards.

Moreover, the impact of mail fraud can go beyond financial loss. Victims may experience feelings of shame, embarrassment, and anger. They may also suffer from stress, anxiety, and depression. In some cases, victims may face legal consequences, such as fines or imprisonment, if they unknowingly participate in illegal activities.

Mail fraud can have serious and long-lasting effects on its victims. It is important to be vigilant and cautious when receiving mail from unfamiliar sources and to report any suspicious activity to the appropriate authorities.

How Law Enforcement Agencies Investigate And Prosecute Mail Fraud Cases

Mail fraud is a federal offense in the United States and is investigated and prosecuted by law enforcement agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), and the Department of Justice (DOJ). The investigation process for mail fraud cases typically involves a combination of intelligence gathering, evidence collection, and collaboration with other agencies.

The investigation process usually begins with a complaint or tip-off from a victim, a financial institution, or another government agency. The investigating agency then conducts a preliminary investigation to determine if the allegations have merit and if a crime has been committed. They will collect evidence such as documents, emails, bank statements, and surveillance footage to build a case against the suspect.

Once the investigation is complete, the agency will present its findings to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which will decide if the case should be prosecuted. If the case goes to trial, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knowingly and intentionally devised or participated in a scheme to defraud and that the scheme involved the use of the mail to execute the fraud.

If the defendant is found guilty, they can face imprisonment, fines, and restitution to the victims. The penalties for mail fraud can be severe, with sentences ranging from a few years to decades in prison, depending on the nature and extent of the fraud.

Investigating and prosecuting mail fraud cases requires a thorough and coordinated effort from law enforcement agencies. The process involves gathering evidence, collaborating with other agencies, and presenting a strong case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for prosecution. The severity of the penalties for mail fraud underscores the importance of deterring this type of criminal activity.

Tips For Protecting Yourself From Mail Fraud

Mail fraud is a serious issue that can have significant financial and personal consequences. However, there are several steps you can take to protect yourself from mail fraud:

  • Be cautious of unsolicited offers or requests. If you receive an unexpected offer or request in the mail, be skeptical and investigate the sender and their credentials before responding or taking any action.
  • Secure your mailbox. Make sure your mailbox is secure and cannot be easily accessed by unauthorized individuals. Consider using a mailbox with a lock or installing a security camera.
  • Shred sensitive documents. Shred any sensitive documents, such as bank statements, credit card offers, and personal information before disposing of them.
  • Monitor your accounts. Regularly monitor your bank and credit card statements for any suspicious activity or unauthorized transactions.
  • Use secure online methods. Whenever possible, use secure online methods for transactions and communication, such as a secure website or encrypted email.
  • Educate yourself. Stay informed about the latest mail fraud scams and tactics, and be aware of common warning signs such as promises of quick profits, requests for payment upfront, or requests for personal information.
  • Report suspicious activity. If you suspect you have been a victim of mail fraud or have received a suspicious offer or request, report it to the appropriate authorities, such as the Federal Trade Commission or the United States Postal Inspection Service.

By taking these steps and remaining vigilant, you can help protect yourself from mail fraud and safeguard your financial and personal information.

Related Crimes To Mail Fraud

Wire Fraud

You are committing fraud online or through wire services like Western Union rather than through the mail. We’ve all heard the tales of people who sent large sums of money to persons who claimed to be in love with them but who they had never seen or seen. Even though it may sound absurd, innocent folks are the victims of this every day. The same punishments apply to mail fraud and wire fraud.

Bank Fraud

When a defendant wants to swindle a financial institution, such as a bank, this occurs. This involves phishing, financial theft, and identity theft. Compared to conventional mail fraud, the penalties for bank fraud are far harsher.

Hiring A Lawyer For Mail Fraud Cases

Hiring a lawyer for mail fraud cases is essential to protect oneself from the serious legal consequences of such charges. Mail fraud is a federal crime that involves the use of the mail system to deceive or defraud individuals or entities. It is a serious offense that can lead to imprisonment, fines, and a permanent criminal record.

When choosing a lawyer for a mail fraud case, it is important to select someone who has experience in handling federal criminal cases. They should have a thorough understanding of the legal system and the specific laws related to mail fraud. They should also have a track record of success in defending clients in similar cases.

A good lawyer will work closely with their client to gather evidence, build a strong defense strategy, and negotiate with prosecutors to seek a favorable outcome. They will also provide guidance throughout the legal process, explaining each step and answering any questions the client may have.

Hiring a skilled lawyer for a mail fraud case is crucial to protect oneself from the serious legal consequences that can arise.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Mail Fraud a Federal Crime or State Crime?

Both, but it is most often prosecuted as a federal crime.

What Is the Statute of Limitations for Mail Fraud?

The statute of limitations for mail fraud and wire fraud prosecutions is five years, except in the case of schemes that affect a financial institution, where it is ten years (ref. 18 U.S.C. § 3282 and 18 U.S.C. § 3293).

Can I Be Charged If I Didn’t Actually Send Anything Through the Mail?

Yes, even if you didn’t actually send anything through the mail but used the postal service to further your scheme you can be charged with mail fraud.

What Are the Penalties for Mail Fraud?

The penalties for mail fraud can be up to 30 years in prison and a fine of $1,000,000 depending on the circumstances.

Can I Seal My Record If I’m Convicted of Mail Fraud?

No, you cannot seal your record if you are convicted of mail fraud. It is a federal crime and will stay on your record for life.

Leave a Comment

This blog is ONLY for informational or educational purposes and DOES NOT substitute professional legal advise. We take no responsibility or credit for what you do with this info.