Federal Mail Fraud: Definition & Federal Statute

Instructor: Patricia Jankowski

Patricia has a BSChE. She's an experienced registered nurse who has worked in various acute care areas as well as in legal nurse consulting.

Mail fraud is a federal crime that is regulated under the Mail Fraud Act. It involves acts of fraud in which the mail system is used to carry out a crime. This lesson will examine mail fraud, laws that prohibit it, and related penalties.

A Costly Problem

Mail fraud is a serious issue that costs vulnerable citizens millions of dollars. An elderly person who is struggling financially may receive a notice in the mail that, for just a few dollars, he can get the winnings to a sweepstakes he ''won.'' But he will never see a cent. A teenage girl who has been jilted by her boyfriend may receive a letter from a ''psychic,'' telling her that for just a few dollars and minutes of her time, she can find out how to get that boyfriend back. But he's already gone on to someone new.

The use of the mail system to fool someone into giving their hard-earned money to some scammer is against the law. Let's find out how.

What Is Mail Fraud?

Mail fraud is the use of the United States Postal Service, or USPS, to commit an act of fraud, which simply means an attempt to scam someone out of money or services. It also applies to the use of corporate mail delivery systems like FedEx and UPS.

Something for Nothing

Mail fraud is all about trying to get something for nothing from the person being scammed. It has to be not only deceitful but also actually fraudulent. In other words, false advertising itself is not mail fraud. An unscrupulous sender could send out a mailing to customers claiming it's supported by an agency like the CDC (Centers For Disease Control and Prevention), selling vitamins that are supposed to keep a person from getting the flu. If they've got the vitamins for sale, and the customer gets them after paying for them, it's not mail fraud, even if the CDC has never heard of them.

However, if the sender is sending out a mailing asking a potential victim for money to get the winnings from a supposed ''sweepstakes,'' as in the introductory example, and there is no sweepstakes nor any winnings, that's mail fraud. The sender gets some money from the victim, and the victim gets nothing.


In order for someone to be guilty of mail fraud, the person carrying out the act must actually have the intention of committing that fraud. This can usually be proven from the details of the individual case.

Aiding and Abetting

To be guilty of mail fraud, the guilty party does not have to personally mail the fraudulent material. Anybody who's helping carry out the fraud is also guilty and can be charged and penalized.

The Mail Fraud Act

The laws that define, regulate and stipulate penalties for mail fraud come from the Mail Fraud Act, which was introduced in its original form in 1872. It is currently codified as 18.U.S.C. 1341, 1343 and covers both mail and wire fraud. This U.S.C. code means United States Code and is how the official federal statues are written out, or codified, in law.

In the Mail Fraud Act, the definition of fraud is very broad so that it can cover a variety of creative scamming, since scammers are always coming up with new and ever more sophisticated ideas to steal from their victims.

The Mail Fraud Act makes mail fraud a federal crime, and most of the time, it is prosecuted by the federal government. However, some states, like Arkansas and Michigan, have additional laws that specify penalties for various levels of fraud, the severity of which is usually based on how much money was stolen.

A Convenient Tool

The Mail Fraud Act is, in practice, more than just a law regulating mail fraud. It's also used as a tool for prosecuting other types of fraud that are much more extensive, because often in the commission of those types of fraud, the mail system is somehow used. If a particular type of fraud is difficult to prove or prosecute, the Mail Fraud Act can be a way of opening the door to a case if, in the course of committing the crime, the mail system was used in any way. Some computer crime can even fall under the category of mail fraud.

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