What is mail fraud?
Mail fraud refers to any kind of fraudulent scheme involving the U.S. Postal Service or any kind of parcel delivery service (including private, commercial services like UPS, DHL and Federal Express). A person can be charged with mail fraud merely for using the postal service or a private delivery service to send or receive material related to a criminal scheme or fraud, even if the fraud didn’t involve the delivery service itself.
Mail fraud might be considered a “white collar” offense, but it’s still a serious charge — one that can earn a hefty fine or prison time upon a conviction.
What are the elements of mail fraud?
Mail fraud is a pretty broad charge — basically any type of criminal scheme in which someone uses the U.S. Postal Service or a private delivery carrier can earn a mail fraud charge.
Specifically, there are three elements in the legal definition of mail fraud. To be charged with mail fraud, a prosecutor has to prove the following:
- There was a scheme to commit some kind of fraud;
- A mail or delivery service was used to further the fraud; and
- There was specific intent to commit the fraud.
In a legal sense, the word fraud means to knowingly or negligently misrepresent a material fact in order to deprive someone of something valuable. Usually, a fraudulent scheme involves money or some other kind of financial gain, but it could be extended to other things of value — like influencing someone to transfer property or deceptively convincing someone not to take an action.
With mail fraud, a person is merely accused of using the U.S. Postal Service or a private delivery service as an element of their scheme. It could be mailing one person a letter falsely claiming the recipient must pay to have a non-existent warrant cleared from their record, or something as elaborate as mailing thousands of people fliers fraudulently claiming they’ve won some kind of prize. Deceit is a key element of mail fraud.
As you can probably tell, mail fraud is a type of criminal charge that has broad application to cover many different types of fraudulent activity carried out through the postal service or a private delivery service.
Can a person be charged with mail fraud even if no one lost money?
Yes. A prosecutor merely has to allege that some kind of fraudulent activity took place using the U.S. Postal Service or a private delivery service. A prosecutor doesn’t have to prove that anyone fell for a scheme or that money exchanged hands — only that there was a knowing or reckless attempt to deceive.
Can a person be charged with mail fraud if the scheme didn’t involve a request for money?
That depends. Mail fraud requires an attempt to gain something of value. In most criminal cases, prosecutors allege that “something of value” is money.
Hypothetically, a person who sends mailers to thousands of people attempting to influence their vote by knowingly using deceptive language to sway opinion on an issue or candidate could be charged with mail fraud — a prosecutor could argue that a person’s vote is “something of value.”
Remember: A prosecutor doesn’t have to prove that the fraudulent scheme was successful. So in our hypothetical situation, a prosecutor could argue that there was an attempt to sway political opinion and influence votes by a person mailing fliers they knew contained deceptive language, even if no one fell for the scheme.
But what if the person didn’t know his or her mailer contained deceptive language? What if the mailers merely contained a meme the person found on Facebook about a political issue or candidate, and the person felt it was their patriotic duty to inform their community?
That is where things get a bit more complicated. A prosecutor has to prove that the person either knew, or should have known that their letters contained deceptive language. If the mailers were sent by a political researcher, a prosecutor might argue that the person knew, or should have known, the mailers contained deceptive language because, by virtue of their job, the person is highly knowledgeable about political issues and candidates. But it could be a different argument entirely if the mailers were sent by a grocery store clerk — someone who wouldn’t have specialized knowledge about political issues or candidates.
What do I do if I’ve been charged with mail fraud?
First and foremost, don’t panic. While mail fraud is a serious charge, there are a number of things a seasoned and skillful criminal defense attorney can do to help.
Remember, to charge someone with mail fraud, a prosecutor must prove that a person carried out a fraudulent scheme and used either the U.S. Postal Service or a private delivery service in any part of the scheme. A prosecutor must also prove knowledge and intent — something that can be difficult to prove.
A good criminal defense attorney will examine your case and the charges against you. The attorney will work through each and every element of your case and identify areas where a prosecutor might have a hard time making an argument to support a mail fraud charge.
If you have been charged with mail fraud, or you think you could be charged in the future, contact criminal defense attorney Mark Reichel right now for a free consultation.
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