Mail fraud wears many faces, all of them masks. It could be a brochure touting a vacation paradise that may turn out to be a mirage. It could be a rare opportunity to buy cheap medications through the mail, or an invitation to join a lonely hearts club. A package may even show up at your door with COD charges due, even if it is something you didn't order.
Some of this duplicity, such as crafting a solicitation so that it looks like a check waiting inside the envelope, is merely annoying. But a lot of it is illegal, and despite all the publicity about the proliferation of mail fraud, it still hones in on thousands of victims every year. Essentially, the perpetrators are after two things -- your money and your personal information.
The basic anti-mail fraud statute is a federal one, with teeth. According to the U.S. Code Book, it can be employed against anyone who uses the U.S. Postal Service "to obtain money or anything of value from a victim by offering a product, service or investment opportunity that does not live up to its claims." The first part of seeking an conviction is relatively easy, proving that the U.S. mail was used. The problem has always been proving intent. Moreover, given that mail fraud schemes are usually launched from post office boxes or other semi-anonymous locations, tracking a scam to its source can be time-consuming in itself.
If someone advertises a product and then fails to deliver that product because of extenuating circumstances (i.e., a promised bushel of apples is unable to be delivered because of drought conditions), the vital element if intent might be missing. It must be proven that something was promised with the foreknowledge that it would never be sent, and there is no distinction made between mail fraud and attempted mail fraud. The act of seeking money illegally is considered the same as actually obtaining it.
There is also a civil law, the False Representation Statute, that helps those victimized by mail fraud to get redress through civil proceedings. In this case, the plaintiff must only prove that the claim being represented was false, and that money or property was sought through the mail. This prevents the perpetrators from insulating themselves behind a layer of unsuspecting employees.
Some fraudulent mail is almost an exact copy of a notice from a credit card company or other legitimate business, asking for personal information. The best thing to do if you're unsure is to inquire by telephone or e-mail as to the legitimacy of the request. Do not, of course, use the e-mail or telephone number provided by the scammer. If you are being harassed for money "owed" through a fraudulent solicitation, it is sometimes enough simply to remind the sender that mail fraud is a federal crime.