Many defendants charged with fraud-related crimes are surprised to learn that they are being charged with a federal offense if any part of their activity involved the US postal service or a private mail carrier. That’s because, in California, mail fraud (as knows as postal fraud) is considered a federal, not state, criminal offense.
Even more alarming for defendants is when they learn the potential penalties of mail fraud. While the offense sounds relatively minor, the truth is that it is anything but. Mail fraud carries a sentence of up to twenty years in federal prison and/or a very large fine.
What Is Mail Fraud?
To understand mail fraud, it’s important to first know what the federal definition of “fraud” is. Fraud is broadly defined by the government as any scheme to:
- Obtain money or property under false pretenses
- Sell, distribute, exchange, supply, or use counterfeits
If any part of a defendant’s fraudulent activity involved the mailing of something associated with the fraud, that would constitute mail fraud.
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Examples Of Mail Fraud
Because the law that define mail fraud are fairly open ended, it can be difficult to understand exactly what qualifies as an offense. Here are a couple of hypothetical examples:
Example 1: Jane creates website that advertises all-natural, locally made organic soap. In reality however, Jane is sending people generic, store-bought soap that is none of the things her website claims.
Because Jane is using the mail (it doesn’t matter if it’s USPS, UPS, FedEx, or something else) as part of her fraudulent activity, she can be charged with mail fraud.
Example 2: John is con-man who pretends to be a Hollywood talent scout. He makes money by asking aspiring actors to pay to get pictures of themselves (“headshots”) that he will send to directors to get them an audition. Some of the people he cons send him checks in the mail to pay for his fake photography services.
Even though John isn’t the one putting the checks in the mail, that act of receiving those checks is furthering his fraudulent activity, which is still counted as mail fraud.
Defending Against Mail Fraud Charges
Because mail fraud is a federal crime, it’s important to work with an attorney who has experience trying federal cases. The two most common ways to defend against mail fraud are to prove either a lack of intent and/or a mistake of fact.
Mail fraud cases often involve complicated schemes, ofen business related, and it’s sometimes possible for innocent people to get unknowingly caught up in fraudulent activity being perpetrated by someone else.
To be convicted of mail fraud, a prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant specifically intended to assist with the fraud.
To learn more, or to get help with federal criminal case, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.