If federal authorities suspect that you used the mail as part of a scheme to commit fraud, you might find yourself facing charges of mail fraud.
You can be found guilty of committing mail fraud for involving the United States Postal Service or any other mail carrier in a fraudulent scheme, even if the mail was only involved in a minor way. A fraud does not need to be carried out primarily through the mail in order to constitute mail fraud.
Mail fraud is a federal crime that is often charged alongside other federal or state crimes and carries severe penalties. Like most federal crimes, a conviction for mail fraud carries long sentences and steep fines.
What is mail fraud?
When a mail fraud case makes it to court, the prosecution must prove three facts beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict the defendant:
- There was specific intent to commit fraud,
- A scheme to commit fraud, and
- Use of the mail as a means to further that scheme
If the prosecution can’t prove all three of these facts, a defendant can’t be found guilty of committing mail fraud. The language above is pretty vague, so we’ll explain what this means below.
1. Specific intent to commit fraud
“Specific intent” means that the defendant committed fraud knowingly and intentionally. The prosecution must prove that the defendant knew about the scheme and participated in it for the purpose of committing fraud.
However, there are certain instances when a person can be convicted of mail fraud without demonstrating specific intent to defraud. If a person does not intentionally lie or deceive anyone but shows a “reckless indifference” to the truth, it may still be considered fraud.
Below is an example of a case where reckless indifference might constitute mail fraud:
Claudia runs a company that manufactures cleaning products. She sends out a flyer marketing their newest household cleaner. The flyer that states that the product kills more germs on contact than any of the brand-name cleaners on the market. But Claudia and her company never conducted any research to test the effectiveness of the cleaner against other cleaners and have no evidence that the statement is true.
While Claudia did not have specific intent to deceive customers, she also wasn’t sure that her advertisement was true and accurate. Claudia could be found guilty of mail fraud because the statement on her flyer demonstrates a reckless indifference to the truth.
2. A scheme to commit fraud
In the case of mail fraud, “fraud” is knowingly or recklessly misrepresenting a material fact in order to deprive someone else of something valuable, or in simpler terms, lying to get someone to give up something valuable. In most instances, that “something valuable” is money. Below are some important facts to know about fraud as it relates to mail fraud charges:
- You don’t need to say something untrue to commit fraud. Even if you don’t blatantly lie or make a false statement, it is possible to be found guilty of fraud by omitting important facts.
- The misrepresentation must be a material fact. In other words, the lie or information that was left out has to be something important.
Example 1: John tries to get people to invest in a new restaurant in Santa Clarita by advertising that a big investor, a man from New York, has already invested over $500,000, even though that man actually decided not to invest in the restaurant.
John’s misrepresentation was of a significant fact to other potential investors and likely constitutes fraud.
Example 2: John tries to get people to invest in a new restaurant in Santa Clarita by advertising that a big investor, a man from New York, has already invested over $500,000. However, the investor is actually a woman from New York.
Because the fact of whether the investor is a man or a woman is probably not considered to be material, John would most likely not be convicted of fraud in this case.
- The misrepresentation must be meant to deceive someone of “ordinary prudence.” In simpler terms, this means that someone with a normal amount of common sense has to be susceptible to believing the lie. If the misrepresentation is outrageous or absurd, it may not constitute fraud.
Example: A novelty shop in Carlsbad, CA mails out flyers advertising that their shop is selling “real pet aliens from a distant galaxy.”
It is possible that the shop would not be considered guilty of fraud since the lie would be considered outrageous by someone with a reasonable degree of common sense.
- The scheme to commit fraud does not have to be successful. Even if nobody buys into the scheme and no money or materials are gained from other people, you can still be convicted of committing mail fraud for trying to do so.
3. Use of the mail as a means to further a scheme to commit fraud
Mail fraud, like many other federal crimes, is handled by the federal court because it can be carried out across state lines. However, state lines do not need to be crossed in order for a crime to constitute mail fraud. The use of the mail in order to carry out or further a fraudulent scheme can take a number of forms including the following:
- Having materials delivered by the United States Postal Service or any other mail carrier or shipping company
- Having someone deposit materials into a mailbox for you
- Receiving materials delivered by the United States Postal Service or any other mail carrier or shipping company
Crimes related to mail fraud
There are a number of related crimes that a person could be charged with instead of or in addition to mail fraud.
Using a fictitious name to commit mail fraud
Using a fake name or address while committing mail fraud is a separate federal offense and could result in additional penalties including:
- Fines, and/or
- Up to 5 years in federal prison
Attempt to commit mail fraud or conspiracy to commit mail fraud
Even if you are unsuccessful in carrying out a mail fraud scheme, you can still be convicted for attempting to do so. Similarly, participating in a conspiracy to commit mail fraud is a criminal activity, regardless of whether or not a successful scheme is carried out.
In an attempt or conspiracy to commit mail fraud, a defendant is subject to the same penalties as a typical mail fraud charge.
Wire fraud is a federal crime that is similar to mail fraud in many ways. The main difference between wire fraud and mail fraud is the use of radio, internet, television, or wire communication in order to further a fraudulent scheme, as opposed to the mail.
Wire fraud and mail fraud are often charged together and carry similar penalties. Wire fraud penalties include:
- Fines, and/or
- Up to 20 years in federal prison
- Maximum prison sentence of 30 years if the fraud involves a federal disaster or financial institution
Any fraudulent scheme that is carried out via the internet is considered internet fraud or “cybercrime.”
While use of email in a scheme to defraud may be prosecuted as wire fraud, other uses of the interned set as advance fee fraud, work-at-home scams, or hacking can be charged as internet fraud. Internet fraud crimes can be prosecuted under either federal or state law, depending on the facts of the case.
Securities fraud includes a lot of different activities that involve investment securities and is both a federal and a California state crime. Securities fraud is sometimes charged in addition to mail fraud and can significantly increase penalties. Securities fraud penalties for a California state conviction include:
- Fines of up to ten million dollars, or
- A prison sentence of up to 5 years
Securities fraud penalties for a federal conviction include:
- A prison sentence of up to 20 years
California fraud crimes
Fraud laws in California cover a number of situations, including:
- Identity theft
- Credit card fraud
- Check fraud
- Welfare fraud
- Heathcare fraud
- Medi-Cal fraud
- Workers’ compensation fraud
- Unemployment insurance fraud
- Automobile insurance fraud
- Real estate fraud
Mail fraud penalties and sentencing
Mail fraud is a federal crime and is subject to federal laws about penalties and sentencing. Possible penalties for mail fraud include:
- A prison sentence of up to 20 years or up to 30 years if the crime involved a federal financial or disaster institution, and/or
- Fines up to $1 million
Legal defenses against mail fraud charges
Depending on the evidence and facts of your case, there could be a number of possible defenses against mail fraud charges.
One of the most common defense strategies is proving lack of intent. If you unknowingly or accidentally became involved in a fraudulent scheme, your attorney might be able to find evidence to prove that you did not possess the specific intent to defraud and you may not be found guilty of mail fraud.
Mail fraud and other types of fraud are serious crimes that are prosecuted aggressively and could result in severe penalties. If you have been charged with mail fraud or a related crime, you need an experienced and dedicated criminal defense attorney in your corner.
Robert M. Helfend is a California SuperLawyers and Lead Counsel rated attorney with over 30 years of experience successfully representing clients in both state and federal cases. Call today for your free case evaluation 800-834-6434.