Mail fraud

Mail fraud

Mail fraud refers to any scheme which attempts to unlawfully obtain money or valuables in which the postal system is used at any point in the commission of a criminal offense. Mail fraud is a legal concept in the United States Code which can provide for increased penalty of any criminally fraudulent activity if it is determined that the activity involved used the United States Postal Service. As in the case of wire fraud, this statute is often used as a basis for a separate federal prosecution of what would otherwise have been only a violation of a state law. In countries with non-federal legal systems the concept of mail fraud is irrelevant: the activities listed below are likely to be crimes there, but the fact that they are carried out by mail makes no difference to which authority may prosecute or the penalties which may be imposed.

Types of mail fraud

Non-delivery or misrepresentation of mail-order merchandise

This scheme exists in various forms; order an item, make payment, receive nothing is the simplest form of mail fraud. Other variants include misleading descriptions (advertisement says an expensive camera is available by mail-order, when the item arrives it turns out to be a toy camera), deliberate sale of defective merchandise or even stolen merchandise. High-ticket items such as computer hardware are particularly tempting targets for scam artists.

The same scams now exist online; non-delivery of auction or mail-order merchandise advertised on Internet sites is a common complaint.

Another variant involves shipping merchandise which was never ordered, obtaining a signature on delivery (or even COD), demanding payment for the items on the basis that they were signed for at destination.

Promotions selling services or data delivered entirely online are also particularly high-risk; if the promoter in question refuses to deliver as advertised, a fraud may be much more difficult to prove than if the seller is obliged to ship a parcel which requires a signature at destination.

Internet fraud and online auction fraud

Internet fraud or wire fraud schemes may also qualify as mail fraud if the mails are being used at any point in the scheme, including a request that a money order be sent to pay for non-existent or undelivered auction merchandise. Many of these schemes are merely variants on the fraudulent mail-order scams in which the merchandise is never delivered as described or delivered at all.

Online schemes claiming that "a hot female escort will give you access to her entire pornography collection on some Internet site if you send a money order to a drop box in Barrie", if payment is accepted by postal money order and the product never received, would also qualify. The original solicitation is made online, the supposed product claims to be delivered online, but use of the mails at any point (such as to receive money or negotiable instruments) could easily qualify such a scheme as mail fraud.


A number of schemes which misrepresent the identity of the sender, delivering forged documents or bogus requests for personal info (see Bank fraud, Phishing) have also been perpetrated by mail; one version involves sending bogus forms which claim to be from taxation authorities requesting or demanding banking info in order to collect tax on deposit interest. The information obtained is then used in other frauds or in theft of identity schemes.

Promotional cheques

It looks like a coupon and is formatted to appear like a cheque; "oh look, XYZ long distance company wants to send you $10". Look a little more closely and this supposed "cheque" contains slippery fine-print wording which authorises the company to change the cashing party's default telephone long-distance carrier or incurs other obligations on their behalf.

Solicitations in the guise of an invoice

"This is not an invoice. This is a solicitation. You are under no obligation to make any payments on account of this offer unless you accept this offer."

So begins the wording on some rather slippery documents which look like they're bills or invoices even though they're not. The wording of the disclaimer is taken directly from the US Postal Service Domestic Mail Manual; the intent is to be able to claim that this document is not a fake invoice while still retaining a format which allows a small percentage of recipients to mistake it for a bill and send payment. If the amounts requested from businesses by these "solicitations" are in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, even a fraction of a percent response rate suffices for the scheme to be profitable.

Schemes involving actual fake bills or invoices (such as one where copies of a bogus dry-cleaning bill are mailed to every restaurateur in town with a "your server spilled food on my expensive suit, pay my cleaner's bill" note) have also been used to attempt to take unsuspecting victims to the cleaners.

Get-rich-quick schemes

These take a number of forms, such as the Ponzi scheme or pyramid scheme in which the addressee is invited by a "chain letter" to send money to the first of a list of names and addresses before forwarding the letter to several more people. The person starting the Ponzi scheme claims to have become rich (the infamous Dave Rhodes letter with its claim to have made $50000 is an online variant of this) but the people at the bottom of the pyramid receive nothing. In some cases, every address on the chain letter will be a drop box controlled by the person sending the letters or by one or more accomplices.

Another common get-rich-quick scheme is the Nigerian 419 scam which claims that someone wants to transfer some large amount of money out of their country (or is making a deathbed effort to donate it all to a church or charitable organisation); and all that is needed is for the recipient to send all of their bank account information and some inflated advance fee to pay for the cost of the transfer or the cost of legal counsel. Of course the massive fortune in foreign money never arrives; the scheme exists to victimise the greedy and the gullible.

Work-at-home scams

The ad claims that a small fortune can be easily earned "working at home", "assembling small products in your spare time" or "stuffing envelopes" (presumably for a few dollars per piece, not the few cents that businesses actually pay to have a machine do this). Just send $29.95 for more info! Another variant claims that manufacturers are providing sample quantities of laptop computers or other high-ticket items for virtually nothing or that info can be obtained on purchasing motor vehicles for a few dollars at a secret government auction.

The info, if it ever arrives, turns out to be worthless as the easy-money opportunities do not exist as described. Most likely the only way to make money is by selling the info to another person.

Fraudulent charities and "religious" donations

A number of organizations have been set up, claiming to be charities that solicit donations to assist poor and needy families in need of financial aid, food aid and/or medical assistance. While many charitable organizations are legitimate and respected, the more unscrupulous organizations have been known to solicit large sums of money in donations, but actually contribute a very small percentage (or even none at all) to the actual persons in need of assistance.

In a similar vein, various "religious" organizations have been known to seek donations of money from well-meaning persons. These appeals for assistance often target senior citizens, mentally handicapped persons, and even homeless persons -- people who are often susceptible to pleas for mercy and compassion.

Theft from the mails

Sometimes the mail itself has been the target of thieves; parcels containing merchandise or envelopes with "pay to the order of..." visible in the window are prime targets, as are credit cards or payment cards mailed by banks to their depositors. One purpose of this is providing checks to be altered through check washing, having their amounts and the name of the recipient changed.

The most notorious incident of theft of mail was the Great Train Robbery, in which a gang of robbers stopped an entire mail train by tampering with railway signal lights, then robbed the train of registered mail containing valuables being sent by local banks to their head offices.

External links

* [ Better Business Bureau]
* [ US Federal Trade Commission]
* [ US Postal Inspection Service]
* [ ScamClub] Read More about Mail Order Scams

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • mail fraud — see fraud Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Law. Merriam Webster. 1996. mail fraud n. Using letter …   Law dictionary

  • mail fraud — n. The use of the mails to defraud someone. [WordNet 1.5] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

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