Anyone who uses the U.S. mail in an attempt to engage in fraud runs the risk of being prosecuted under the federal mail fraud law. One of the most frequently prosecuted federal laws, mail fraud is often charged by federal prosecutors because it can apply in so many situations, and because it applies to anyone who uses the mail.
Postal Service and Other Carriers
While mail fraud crimes often involve the use of the United States Postal Service, or USPS, you can also commit the crime when you use any interstate carrier, such as FedEx, UPS, or other delivery services. Mail fraud crimes apply to these businesses because the carriers cross state lines when they perform their services.
Mail fraud must be committed intentionally, which means that using the mail to accidentally or unintentionally cause someone else to lose money or property is not mail fraud. Federal law requires that a person engage in some kind of scheme or plan to defraud someone else of something valuable, and must have an intent to defraud. However, prosecutors do no have to actually show the state of mind of a person in order to prove mail fraud. Intent is almost always shown by the circumstances surrounding the case.
Defraud, Not Just Deceive
Courts have held that mail fraud schemes must involve a scheme to defraud someone--to get something for nothing. This means that simply using misleading or deceptive mailings while offering a legitimate service or product is generally not fraud.
For example, you might receive a sales offer in a letter that, from its appearance, seems to be from a government agency (in fact, it's from a private company). While the letter may be visually misleading, as long as the company is offering a legitimate product and trying to obtain new customers, it is not engaging in mail fraud. On the other hand, a person who sends a letter claiming to be from a government agency in order to convince the recipient to hand over money is committing mail fraud.
Truth and Material Misrepresentations
Schemes to defraud usually involve mailings containing lies, misrepresentations, or falsities that lead the letter's recipient to act. This type of a statement is known as a material misrepresentation, and these are a necessary part of mail fraud. A material misrepresentation is a statement that causes victims to do something they probably wouldn't have done if the statement had never been made.
However, if you use the mail in support of any fraud fraud scheme, the mailings you send do not necessarily have to contain any falsehoods. If, for example, you send a letter to someone that contains correct information, but do so in order to follow up on a call or as part of a general plan to defraud, this too is mail fraud.
Use, Caused Use, and Attempts
You don't have to personally mail your letter to be convicted of mail fraud. Federal law makes it a crime anytime someone “used or caused another to use” the USPS or another carrier in a fraud attempt.
Further, mail fraud occurs whenever a person attempts to defraud someone else by using the mail, meaning you don't actually have to succeed in defrauding someone else to be found guilty.
While mail fraud is a widely applicable crime, it doesn't apply in all fraud cases. For example, if you use a phone or email to fraudulently convince someone to pay you money and the crime never involves use of the mail, you have not committed mail fraud. However, there are numerous other federal fraud laws that can apply in other fraud schemes which do not use the mail, such as wire or computer fraud.
Mail fraud penalties are potentially very significant. While the specific penalty a court imposes will differ significantly based on the circumstances of the case, any mail fraud conviction can result in high fines, long prison sentences, and other penalties.
- Incarceration. The potential prison penalty for a federal mail fraud crime is very stiff. Each offense can result in a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison. However, the penalty can be harsher if the crime involves specific victims or elements. When, for example, a fraud scheme involves federal disaster relief or where the victim is a financial institution, sentences of 30 years per offense are possible.
- Fines. Mail fraud fines are also very high. A conviction for a single count of mail fraud can result in a fine of up to $250,000. For fraud involving financial institutions or federal disaster relief, fines of up to $1 million per offense are possible.
- Probation. Mail fraud convictions can also result in a probation term. Anyone sentenced to probation has to spend a specific amount of time, typically one to three years or more, abiding by specific court conditions in lieu of serving prison time. These conditions limit the person's liberties, such as by requiring the probationer to regularly report to a probation monitor, submitting to random home searches or random drug tests, not associating with known criminals, and not committing other crimes.
- Restitution. When a mail fraud scheme succeeds in defrauding someone of property or causes harm to a victim, courts make restitution a part of the sentence. Restitution payments are made to the victims so they can recover what they lost as a result of the fraud. Restitution payments must be made in addition to fines, and when probation is given, are made a condition of the sentence.
Speak With an Attorney
If you're facing a mail fraud charge you need the advice of an experienced criminal defense attorney. Mail fraud crimes can arise in almost any federal criminal case, and can lead to significant penalties even if you do not believe your actions were illegal. As soon as you learn that you are being investigated for, or charged with, a federal crime, you need to seek out a local criminal defense attorney immediately. You can unknowingly and detrimentally affect your case even by speaking to investigators without competent legal representation. Talking to a criminal defense lawyer who is familiar with mail fraud laws and who has experience with the local federal prosecutors and courts is the only way to ensure that your rights are protected at every stage of the criminal justice process.