Mail fraud is classified as a type of white-collar crime. Mail fraud involves the use of the United States mail to further a crime. As a consequence, mail fraud is not what might be called a “stand-alone” crime, a violation of the law that is charged on its own. Rather, mail fraud is charged in conjunction with another crime that the United States mal was utilized to advance. For example, mail fraud oftentimes is charged with insurance fraud, tax fraud, bank fraud, and similar white collar crimes.
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The Primary Elements of Mail Fraud
In addition to the existence of an associated crime, the essential elements of the crime of mail fraud must be demonstrated in a successful prosecution. A federal crime, these elements are enumerated in the United States Criminal Code
In order for a defendant to be found guilty of mail fraud, the U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case must prove the four elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, according to the Cornell University School of Law. These four elements are:
- the defendant must have a scheme to defraud or intent to defraud
- the scheme must involve a material misstatement or omission
- if successful, the scheme would result in a loss or money, property, or services
- defendant utilized the United States mail to further the scheme
United States Department of Justice Mail Fraud Prosecution Policy
As a federal crime, the United States Department of Justice has enumerated a policy governing when an allegation of mail fraud should be prosecuted in a United States District Court. In theory, mail fraud could be charged if the U.S. mail is utilized to further any type of crime, including a misdemeanor.
The DOJ’s policy states that prosecutions of mail fraud should not be pursued if the underlying criminal scheme involves isolated transactions between individuals or minor loss to the victims of the conduct. The DOJ recommends that the parties to such transactions involving the United States Mail should be settled either through civil or criminal litigation in the state court system. In other words, the parties should pursue a civil lawsuit to resolve the issue. In the alternative, a state could consider pursuing prosecution of the crime underlying the accusation of mail fraud.
The DOJ maintains that federal criminal prosecution should occur when an allegation of mail fraud suggests a substantial pattern of conduct, a significant amount of money, the defrauding of a class of individuals, or impacts the general public more generally. For example, one category of charges faced by infamous Ponzi scheme perpetrator Bernie Madoff was mail fraud. On the other hand, if a local lawn care service sent an improperly inflated bill for services to a customer, that technically would be mail fraud but standing alone would not be prosecuted by the United States Attorney.
Mail fraud is one of the more commonly charged federal crimes in the United States today. Depending on the extent of the criminal scheme, a person facing a mail fraud charge may face the potential for a significant sentence of incarceration and fine. Restitution is always ordered by the court upon conviction for mail fraud.