What Is Mail Fraud?

Mail fraud occurs when an individual uses the United States postal service or any interstate delivery service in an attempt to engage in fraud.  Mail fraud can occur in many different situations, which is why it is important to know the different ways the federal government can bring charges.

The origins of mail fraud date all the way back to the late 1800’s and originally only applied to fraud involving money and tangible properties.  However, since this time, Congress has expanded the statute over the years to cover a broader range of activity.  For example, mail fraud now includes more than just the United States postal service, but other common carriers such as “FedEx” and “UPS.”

Proving Mail Fraud

The federal mail fraud statute is located at 18 U.S. Code § 1341.  Proving mail fraud is fairly straightforward from the prosecutor’s point of view. When brining an indictment, the prosecutor must show that the defendant had a scheme to defraud another person of their money or property, and used the mail systems to do it.  It is sufficient if the defendant used any method of interstate delivery. 

In contrast, the federal mail fraud laws do not include schemes perpetrated by phone or electronic mail.  The Courts have continued to liberally define what constitute “fraud” using the mail systems, as conduct that breaks a legal or moral duty to another, resulting in harm.  For example, if a customer orders a certain product, and the merchant sends through the mail a lesser grade or quality product than what was ordered, this can constitute fraud.

Penalties for Mail Fraud

The penalties for a conviction of federal mail fraud are quite steep. Each separate offense can result in a prison sentence of up to 20 years. Certain circumstances can even enhance this penalty further. For example, if mail fraud involves federal disaster relief, or the victim is a financial institution, the maximum length of imprisonment per offense rises to 30 years. 

In terms of fines, a defendant convicted of a single count of mail fraud can face a penalty of up to $250,000 per offense, and up to $1 million per offense if the fraud involves federal disaster relief or a financial institution.

What is Wire Fraud?

The federal wire fraud statute makes it a crime for an individual to use an interstate telecommunication device (such as a telephone or computer generated email) as part of a scheme to defraud another person of their property, or something of value.  The federal wire fraud statute is located at 18 U.S. Code § 1343

Much like mail fraud, wire fraud can take many different forms.  With the development of various technologies, the government has expanded its use of the wire fraud statute to prosecute fraud schemes which have utilized various forms of technology in furtherance of a scheme to defraud. 

Charges under the wire fraud statute are often brought along with other criminal charges such as identity theft, money laundering, and tax fraud.  The statute is written broadly enough that it’s application can cover a broad range of conduct.   

Distinction Between Mail Fraud and Wire Fraud

The main difference between federal mail fraud and wire fraud is one of jurisdiction. The mail fraud statute requires that an individual use the postal service (or a private mail carrier or interstate delivery service) to perpetrate the fraudulent scheme.

The wire fraud statute, however, requires that a defendant use a communication device, such as a phone, computer, fax, radio, internet etc. to perpetrate the fraudulent scheme. This is important because under Congress’ power to establish post offices, the mail fraud statute can apply to any use of the mails, even if the fraud occurs entirely within the same state. Wire fraud on the other hand, requires a transmission from one state to another.

Proving Wire Fraud

As with mail fraud, the central issue in bringing a case against a defendant is proving the defendant’s intent to scheme or defraud. Typically, a scheme to defraud can be shown if there is a plan that uses a statement, promise, misrepresentation, deception or any other kind of falsehood to deprive a victim of something of value.

For example, offering over the phone to sell someone a car that you do not own, and attempting to collect the money for said car can constitute fraud. Wire fraud charges can be brought if a defendant uses any type of communication device, such as a phone, computer, radio, fax machine, email or any kind of communication device that utilizes the internet.

Penalties for Wire Fraud

Much like mail fraud, wire fraud can carry with it some very harsh penalties. If convicted, a single act of mail fraud can subject a defendant to a fine of up to $250,000 for individuals ($500,000 for companies and organizations) and imprisonment of up to 20 years, or both. 

However, if the fraud scheme involves a financial institution, or is connected to federally declared disaster relief effort, the penalty increases to a maximum of 30 years in prison and a fine of up $1 Million dollars.


The law is very nuanced. Federal prosecutors have almost unlimited advantages and resources at their disposal. Having attorneys on your team that understand the law, keep abreast of legal developments in the law, have the experience dealing with the complexities of federal statutes and, finally, possess the skills to stand before a jury to make a compelling case on behalf of a client are not just important qualities, they’re critical. At The Federal Defenders. we pride ourselves on being advocates for our clients. With decades of experience with all variety and manner of federal criminal issues and defenses, we understand what it takes to put our clients in a winning position. For a free and confidential consultation, call us today at (800) 712-0000. Just like our toll-free number, we operate nationwide.