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What constitutes mail fraud?

If you live in New York and face charges of mail fraud, you likely wonder exactly what federal law enforcement officials allege you did. FindLaw explains that the reason why mail fraud is a federal crime is that it involves more than one state, i.e., the use of the U.S. Postal Service, UPS, FedEx or some other commercial interstate carrier for the purpose of obtaining money or other assets through false pretenses. Alternatively, it could involve the use of an interstate carrier to sell, distribute, supply or exchange counterfeit goods.

If federal law enforcement officers accuse you of the latter, the prosecutor need not prove that you used the mails to transport the goods themselves. Rather, (s)he need prove only that you sent something through the interstate mails associated with the goods, such as the following:

  • A letter
  • A contract
  • A receipt
  • Any other type of document

Ponzi example

Perhaps the most well-known example of a mail fraud case is that of Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant who started a mail-order pyramid scheme in 1919 that used fraudulent return mail coupons. Even though the Feds convicted him of mail fraud within a few months, he nevertheless made more than $1 million a day while his scheme was in operation. He ultimately served five years in federal prison.

Madoff example

Nearly forty years later, a well-known stockbroker by the name of Bernie Madoff started a far more successful mail fraud Ponzi scheme. Before the Feds finally caught him in 2008, his scheme had taken in nearly 5,000 victims, many of them celebrities, for upwards of $65 billion. Choosing to enter into a plea agreement, Madoff ultimately pleaded guilty to 11 felony accounts, including mail fraud and securities fraud. He remains in federal prison today, serving a 150-year sentence.

Obviously mail fraud represents an extremely serious charge. If you get convicted, you undoubtedly will face a lengthy prison term in addition to exceptionally high fines and other financial penalties. This is general educational information and not intended to provide legal advice. It can, however, help you understand the basics of a mail fraud charge and what you can expect if convicted thereof.

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