Mail Fraud

MAIL FRAUD: TITLE 18, UNITED STATES CODE, SECTION 1341

You certainly do not need to be a Federal criminal lawyer to be familiar with the old axiom, “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” However, this saying is particularly applicable to many Federal criminal prosecutions. Over the last decade we have seen how (and how fast) we communicate information with the advent of text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, iPhones, and the like. These technological breakthroughs have benefited society, but they also can be the conduit to criminal conduct. Despite these current advancements in technology, the Federal crimes that govern their use have remained virtually unchanged over time. Two of the most commonly applied Federal criminal white-collar offenses are Mail Fraud (Title 18, United States Code, Section 1341) and Wire Fraud (Title 18, United States Code, Section 1343).

Mail Fraud is one of the most commonly charged White Collar Federal criminal offenses. Essentially, the Mail Fraud statute makes it illegal for anyone to use, or cause the use of, the United States Postal Service (or any private commercial interstate mail carrier, such as UPS or FedEx), during the course of a scheme to take money from another by fraud or false pretenses. One of the harshest non violent crimes, Mail Fraud is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. A common misconception about Mail Fraud is the belief that the lie or fraud itself must involve the mail. In reality, all that must be proven is that the mail was used or caused to be used during the course of the fraud – any innocent or otherwise innocuous mailing can bring the crime within the law’s jurisdiction. To reiterate, while you may believe your conduct is relatively harmless, once you use a mail service in the course of a criminal fraud scheme, the United States Attorney’s Office has the ability to ratchet up your criminal conduct to one of the most serious Federal crimes. See 18 USC 1341.

Breaking Down Mail Fraud: Understanding the Crime

Stated most simply, Mail Fraud is using the mail to defraud another person, business, financial institution or governmental agency of money or property. Since the United States Postal Service is responsible for delivering all mail within the United States, any fraud that uses the mails affects the Federal government. As such, back in 1948, Congress made it illegal for anyone to use the mail to commit such fraud.

The Mail Fraud Act: Three Essential Elements

There are three main elements of Mail Fraud. First, the defendant must have devised a “scheme or artifice” to defraud another. Second, the defendant must have intended to defraud another. Third, the defendant had to use, or cause another to use, the mail during the course of the scheme to defraud (you, as a defendant, need not be the person directly responsible for utilizing a mail service in the scheme).

As you might imagine, this statute is very broad and can be used by federal prosecutors in any of a number of cases. Mail Fraud cases may be started by the United States Postal Inspection Service (as they have jurisdiction over the mails), or by any other Federal law enforcement agency such as the FBI, IRS or Secret Service. They can use this statute to investigate and charge an individual that they suspect was involved in employment fraud, financial fraud, bank fraud, elder fraud, sweepstakes or lottery fraud, telemarketing fraud, bankruptcy fraud, securities fraud, and many more.

Mail Fraud Act: Material Misrepresentation

To be fraudulent, any misrepresentation (or lie) must be “material.” That is, the misrepresentation must be related to the scheme -- either helping the alleged criminal perpetrate the crime or convincing a purported victim to believe the defendant.

Mail Fraud Act: Scheme to Defraud

Stated most simply, it is a plan to steal money from a person or entity by lying to them.

Mail Fraud Act: Does the Mailing Have to be Illegal to Constitute a Federal Crime

No. As noted above, the mailing does not have to be illegal, or even be sent by the defendant. It only has to be related to the crime – a very broad standard.

Mail Fraud Act: Potential Incarceration and Sentences

The penalties for Mail Fraud can be very serious. Someone convicted of Mail Fraud can be sentenced up to 20 years in Federal prison, pay a $250,000 fine, and be required to make full restitution. If the victim of the fraud is a financial institution (like a bank), the defendant can be sentenced up to 30 years in prison and be fined up to $1,000,000.

Albeit brief, the above review of the Federal Mail Fraud Statute, Title 18, United States Code, Section 1341, should make a few things clear. First and foremost, the Mail Fraud statute is one of the most easily violated offenses found in the Federal criminal law. Compounded by the relative ease in which Assistant United States Attorneys can enforce or prosecute what may appear to be lesser crimes by enforcing the Mail Fraud statute, exposure to long terms of incarceration and significant financial penalties cannot be understated. Retaining a Federal Criminal Defense Attorney is a critical step in helping you navigate any Mail Fraud investigation or prosecution.

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