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What Is Mail Fraud and How Is the Mail Fraud Statute Applied?

Mail fraud doesn’t sound like a serious crime – but it is taken very seriously by law enforcement and federal prosecutors. In fact, because we all use the mail and delivery services so often and without giving it much thought, mail fraud has become the “go to” offense for federal prosecutors when they don’t believe they can convict a defendant of a more specific underlying crime.

If you have been charged with mail fraud, it is imperative that you act quickly to protect your rights and your future. Attorney Michael J. Wynne will work tirelessly to protect you and your rights as well as to provide you with an aggressive and persuasive defense.

What Is Mail Fraud?

Mail fraud is a prosecutor’s dream. In fact, it has become a sort of “catch all” to charge and prosecute defendants when prosecutors realize that they cannot make a case for a more specific crime. Mail fraud is a federal crime governed by 18 U.S.C. 1341, which requires prosecutors to prove two basic elements:

  1. That the defendant devised, or intended to devise, a scheme to defraud and
  2. That the defendant used the mail for the purpose of executing, or attempting to execute, the scheme.

Originally, the mail fraud statute applied only to schemes that involved money or tangible property; however, it now includes fraud that constitutes the “theft of honest services” as well. Likewise, while the crime originally applied only to schemes utilizing the US Postal Service, it now also applies to any interstate mail or delivery carrier, such as UPS.

Note that the prosecution is not required to prove that the scheme was carried out completely nor that a victim suffered injuries. In fact, the intended victim isn’t even required to know that the scheme existed for a defendant to be convicted of mail fraud.

What Constitutes “Fraud?”

To be convicted of mail fraud, the prosecution must prove that a defendant devised a plan to defraud. “Fraud” has been defined by the courts as actions that break a legal or ethical obligation to a person, creating damages. Advertising one product and delivering a lesser product, for example, would be fraud. Fraud can also be found where the defendant violated norms, including the responsibility for honesty and fair play in business and public life. One court defined fraud as a scheme calculated to deceive people with ordinary intelligence and discretion (Badders v. United States, 240 US 391(1916)).

What Constitutes “Using the Mail?”

The second element that the prosecution must prove relates to using the mail to carry out the scheme. Along with broadening the definition of mail to include services other than the USPS, the mail fraud statute also allows a conviction if the prosecution can simply prove that mailing or depositing the item intended. In other words, the prosecution is not required to prove the defendant actually sent something – just they were planning to do so at some point. Moreover, “mailing” can even be proven by pointing to an office’s regular mailing procedures.

What Are the Potential Penalties for Mail Fraud?

Mail fraud is a serious felony offense that carries harsh penalties if convicted, including up to 20 years in prison. If the fraud scheme involves federal disaster relief, or if the intended victim of the fraud is a financial institution, the maximum period of incarceration is increased to 30 years. In addition, you could be sentenced to pay a fine of up to $250,000 for each count of mail fraud. The maximum fine is increased to a staggering $1 million per offense if the fraud involves a financial institution or federal disaster relief. Finally, if the mail fraud scheme is actually successful, a defendant may also be ordered to pay restitution to the victim of the fraud.

Mail Fraud in the News

To help you better understand how often federal prosecutors rely on the mail fraud statute to convict defendants, consider some famous examples:

  • Charles Ponzi – most people are familiar with the concept of a “Ponzi scheme.” We use it to refer to a scheme whereby money from each successive round of participants is used to pay participants from the previous round. Charles Ponzi started a business in 1919 and was soon making a million dollars a day from a scheme involving postal reply coupons. A year later he was indicted on 86 counts of mail fraud and later convicted and sentenced to five years in jail.
  • Bernie Madoff – Madoff claimed to trade in securities; however, he was actually collecting investment funds and using them to pay off victims who insisted on withdrawing funds from the pool. Ultimately, Madoff was prosecuted for defrauding his clients for a staggering $65 billion. He was eventually convicted on 11 charges, including mail fraud and sentenced to 150 years in federal prison.
  • College Cheating Scandal – recently, a “college cheating scandal” made the headlines with several Hollywood stars accused of involvement in the scam. In March 2019 over 50 people were charged in an elaborate scheme that was aimed at getting their high-school age children into elite universities. The FBI agent who investigated the case concluded that the defendants schemed to commit mail fraud. The fact that the participants in the conspiracy mailed checks, photos, applications and reports may be the prosecution’s key to obtaining a conviction for mail fraud.

Contact Attorney Michael J. Wynne Today

Mail fraud is one of the most commonly charged federal offenses. It is a long road, however, from an allegation to a conviction. If you are the target of a federal investigation for mail fraud, or you have already been officially charged, the key to protecting your reputation, your future, and your freedom is to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately.

As an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of Texas for over a decade, attorney Michael J. Wynne is well versed on how the government investigates and prosecutes mail fraud cases. He is committed to providing you with a vigorous and successful defense if the government has charged you with mail fraud. Contact attorney Michael J. Wynne immediately by calling 713-942-2255 to schedule an initial consultation.

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