When a perpetrator intentionally deceives another party for personal or financial gain, and uses communications through mail to commit the crime, they can be charged with mail fraud. Mail fraud is a federal crime only in Massachusetts under 18 U.S.C. § 1341, and the mail in question does not need to cross state lines in order to be prosecuted by the federal government.
Mail fraud is a very common federal criminal charge and is often associated with organized crime such as bribery and extortion, and with other white collar crimes like Ponzi schemes and credit card fraud. The US Postal Inspection Service reported 441 mail fraud convictions in 2018.
Common Types of Mail Fraud
- 1. Home Improvement Fraud. A homeowner receives a brochure in the mail with offers of a free home inspection or heavily discounted home repairs. If the homeowner accepts the offer of a free inspection, they are told about a number of unnecessary repairs and convinced they should be done immediately. The result is an unexpected bill. The discounted repair scam leaves the victim with repairs that are done poorly or not at all.
- 2. Real Estate Fraud. A real estate brochure sent through the mail advertises land for sale as an attractive investment opportunity or an ideal site for a second home or retirement option. Unassuming buyers are not aware that the land holds little value and/or may be too remote to access utilities or services. Scammers may even attempt to sell land they do not own with fake titles and contracts.
- 3. Sweepstakes or Inheritance Fraud. The victim receives a letter claiming they have won a cash prize, or an expensive item like a computer, car, boat, or vacation package. The letter instructs the victim to transfer an amount of money first in order to claim the prize. In another version of this scam, a notice states the victim has inherited money but will need to pay a fee or taxes to receive it.
- 4. Financial Services Fraud. The recipient is offered a financial product such as a credit card or a loan, but required to pay a fee up front.
- 5. Charity Fraud. Materials promoting a charity that does not exist prey on the victim’s sympathies, especially for urgent issues that dominate the news. The scammers will use high pressure tactics and refuse to provide further information about the charity, or how the funds will be used. Brochures claiming to represent a politician or political party but in reality have no connection can also attempt to scam the resident.
- 6. Health Insurance Fraud. This scam targets senior citizens to convince them to purchase unnecessary insurance to supplement their Medicare benefits. It’s likely the policy will not cover what the scammers claim, or will be irrelevant to the victim’s circumstances.
- 7. Job Opportunity Fraud. Preying on the unemployed, materials are sent through the mail promoting non-existent job listings for a fee. The scammers try to entice the victim with promises of jobs that require no previous experience, unusually high wages, or guaranteed placement. Of course, the jobs never materialize and if there is a money-back guarantee, it will be impossible to meet the requirements.
- 8. Prescription Drug Fraud. A scam posed as a prescription-drug mail order company will claim to ship items from overseas at a discounted rate. The drugs never arrive, or are not the drugs the victim ordered.
- 9. Charging for Free Services Fraud. This scam claims the victim will have to pay for a service that is normally available for free, such as changing their address with the post office, or adding their names to a do-not-call registry. This scam is furthered by “look-alike” letters that impersonate an official government agency, such as the US postal service or the IRS.
- 10. Small Business Fraud. Small businesses can be targeted by fake “official” letters from state or local governments soliciting fees for unnecessary registrations or licenses.
Fraud Leading to Identity Theft
Identity theft is a crime involving obtaining identification and financial information from victims and using it to impersonate the victim in financial transactions. The perpetrators may make purchases with stolen credit card numbers or wire money to a collaborator with a stolen bank account number, claim benefits with a stolen Social Security number, or use health insurance policy information to obtain health benefits.
- 1. Telemarketing Fraud. Brochures and letters in the mail instruct the recipient to call a toll-free number. The scammer entices the victim to share personal information such as social security numbers or credit card numbers that can lead to identity theft.
- 2. Physical Theft of Mail. In order to commit identity fraud, the perpetrator needs access to sensitive information, which can often easily be obtained by stealing the victim’s mail. Bank statements, credit card bills, payroll information or letters from the IRS can all supply an identity thief with the data they need to commit fraud. Unlocked mailboxes, mail left in external mailboxes over weekends and holidays or while the resident is out of town make the physical mail a target for thieves.
Mail Fraud and Veterans
Veterans are common targets of mail fraud. According to the US Postal Inspection Service, 78% of retired military personnel have been at the receiving end of scams making false claims.
- 1. Veteran Discounts. Although it is not uncommon for businesses to offer a discount on goods and services to veterans, scammers will send brochures with steep discounts on high cost items like vehicles or financial services that never materialize.
- 2. Charges for Free Services. This scam tries to convince veterans that free services, such as requesting records, have to be paid for.
- 3. Charitable Donation Fraud. Materials impersonating charities that benefit veterans attempt to solicit donations.
Mail Fraud Cases
- A New England Patriots fan was charged with mail fraud after posing as a member of the team to order three Super Bowl Championship rings, claiming they were for quarterback Tom Brady. Scott V. Spina of Roseland, New Jersey, first convinced a member of the team identified in court papers as “TJ” to sell him his Super Bowl ring and other memorabilia for $32,000, which he paid for with a fraudulent check. Spina then ordered three more Super Bowl rings by impersonating TJ and claimed they were gifts for Tom Brady’s baby, which aroused suspicion since at the time, Brady’s youngest child was five years old. Spina was sentenced to three years in prison.
- A rapper known as Nuke Bizzle (Fontrell Antonio Baines) pleaded guilty to charges of mail fraud for fraudulently claiming unemployment benefits from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program under the CARES Act. Baines used stolen identities to apply for benefits under several names in the form of pre-loaded debit cards. Baines was prosecuted partly because of evidence in a music video he uploaded in which he bragged about defrauding the PUA.
- A dentist from Pennsylvania, Lawrence Rudolph, was convicted of murder and mail fraud for shooting his wife on a hunting trip and then claiming millions of dollars in life insurance benefits from multiple insurance companies. The couple were on a hunting trip at a big game reserve in Zambia when the dentist shot his wife in the heart. Rudolph claimed the shooting was an accident. Investigators later found that Rudolph had made changes to the life insurance policies earlier in the year, and that he was involved with another woman. The prosecution claimed Rudolph purposely shot his wife to gain the insurance money and start his life with a new partner.
- A mother and daughter team at a funeral home in Montrose, Colorado, pleaded guilty to charges of mail fraud for charging families of the deceased for funeral services and selling the cadavers for a profit. An investigation revealed that Megan Hess and Shirley Koch would often send cremated remains to families that were not the same as the deceased, and forged paperwork about the identity and conditions of the body parts they sold.
Federal Penalties for Mail Fraud
If convicted of mail fraud, the defendant faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, and/or a fine of up to $250,000. If the defendant is found guilty of fraud involving a natural disaster or state of emergency, or a financial institution, the sentence increases to a maximum of 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million.
Defenses Against Mail Fraud Charges
It is up to the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew they were engaged in fraudulent activity. For example, an employee tasked with mailing a stack of envelopes who does not know the contents, or that the mail is being sent in order to defraud the recipients, cannot be convicted of mail fraud. If the employee knows the contents of the mail – for example, a brochure about a “free” home inspection, but the prosecution cannot prove the employee was aware of the fraudulent nature of the scheme, the defendant cannot be convicted.
If you are facing a charge of mail fraud, our experienced legal team will expertly handle your defense. Contact us today for a free consultation.