Law
Fact Checked

What Is Mail Tampering?

Renee Booker
Renee Booker

Within many jurisdictions, mail tampering is a crime and is punishable by incarceration, fines, or a term of probation. Within the United States, tampering with the mail may be a crime under state laws; however, mail fraud is a federal crime. The exact definition will vary by jurisdiction, but "tampering" generally includes opening, destroying, damaging, or interfering with mail intended for another person.

Under most states laws within the United States, mail is considered private property. As such, an individual has an expectation of privacy attached to his or her mail. When another person breaches that expectation of privacy, he or she may be guilty of mail tampering.

Mail tampering may lead to imprisonment.
Mail tampering may lead to imprisonment.

State laws differ, but in most cases, no one is allowed to open mail intended for another person. In many cases, even members of the same household cannot open mail addressed to another person in the same house. State statutes do frequently make an exception for United States Postal workers or other carriers if they are acting in good faith when opening the mail as part of their job.

Removing mail from someone else's mailbox may lead to a charge of mail tampering.
Removing mail from someone else's mailbox may lead to a charge of mail tampering.

Destroying, damaging, or interfering with the mail are also often considered mail tampering. For instance, removing mail from someone's mailbox or throwing mail away that is intended for another person may amount to a crime. Under most state statutes, tampering with the mail is a misdemeanor and is punishable by a term of imprisonment of up to a year or two.

Taking mail from someone else's mailbox is a crime.
Taking mail from someone else's mailbox is a crime.

Mail fraud is another crime that involves the mail, but unlike tampering, it is a federal crime. Mail fraud involves using the United States mail to carry out a scheme or plan to unlawfully obtain money or anything else of value. This crime is often used as a reason to make what would otherwise be just a violation of state law a federal offense.

One example of mail fraud is elaborate schemes to steal money from victims by convincing them to send money to a non-existent charity, although the connection to the U.S. Postal Service may not be as obvious in other cases. Basically, if even one check, document, or package was sent through the U.S. Mail during the course of a crime, then mail fraud may be charged, elevating it to a federal crime. In reality, many crimes could be charged at the federal level using the mail fraud charge, but federal district attorneys are selective regarding when they choose to file charges of mail fraud in order to elevate a crime to the federal level.

How Do I Report Someone Tampering With My Mail?

Interfering with mail may include removing postage stamps once a letter has been placed in a mailbox.
Interfering with mail may include removing postage stamps once a letter has been placed in a mailbox.

If you suspect that someone has been tampering with your mail, it's important to take action right away. This type of offense is a serious crime and it could have disastrous consequences for your personal identity, finances, safety, and more. If you think you know who has been tampering with your mail, do not confront the person yourself. This could be dangerous and may not result in complete justice on your part. Instead, take steps to contact professionals who can help you.

How To Report Mail Tampering

The first step in reporting mail tampering is to contact the United States Postal Inspection Service. This organization is a type of police force that specializes in handling legal issues involving the United States Postal Service. You can visit their website, send an email, or call them directly at 1-877-876-2455 for help with this issue.

You will also need to contact the United States Postal Service to report all missing mail and packages. Any tracking numbers you can provide will help expedite your case. It may help to temporarily forward your mail and packages to a new address or PO box until the issue is resolved. Send any outgoing mail by using a public mailbox or visiting your local post office.

If you have suspicions or evidence that points towards a specific person or group, contact your local police. Gather any evidence you may have, including photographs or video footage from a security camera. Be prepared to offer a description of the suspect, as well as give an account for what you believe may have been stolen or withheld and the financial impact it may result in.

Be sure to reach out to any organization that may have sent you mail with sensitive, private information or of monetary value. If you suspect that your credit card, debit card, or bank account has been compromised as a result of mail tampering, contact your bank to make any necessary changes and report unapproved purchases. You may need to request a new card or change your account number to prevent further theft.

Sometimes, mail tampering can result in personal identity theft and severe damage to your personal credit. If mail was stolen that included personal identifiers, such as your social security number, certain account numbers, birthdates, or identification cards, you may need to contact the Federal Trade Commission. There are several organizations that can help you create a recovery plan as needed. Also, you should report identity theft to the three major credit bureaus, which are:

  • Experian
  • TransUnion
  • Equifax

Taking this step can help reduce the damage to your personal credit.

Is Tampering With Mail a Felony?

Understanding what type of offense to consider mail tampering depends on a variety of factors, including which state the tampering occurred in and what type of tampering took place. While opening a person's mail may not put you in federal court, moving a person's mail from the intended delivery location or taking it is a serious crime and is considered a felony. This type of criminal activity most often leads to major fines, possible jail time, and a permanent record that can impact various aspects of a person's life.

In general, those who are convicted of a felony can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison per offense and may be fined as much as $25,000. In the future, they will not be able to pursue a career in education, the medical field, and many other areas. Securing any type of job can be difficult for convicted felons. They also may not be able to obtain a driver's license.

Tips for Preventing Mail Tampering

Mail tampering can happen to anyone, sometimes off-property, making it out of your control. However, there are ways you can reduce your risk of becoming a victim of this type of crime. First, consider purchasing a locking mailbox so that only you can open it to retrieve the contents. Require signatures for packages or instruct them to be placed in a secure location if you are not home when they arrive. You can also ask a neighbor to keep an eye out for them and bring them inside until you return.

When sending mail, do not include personal checks, cash, or gift cards, especially in envelopes that clearly contain greeting cards. These are easy targets for thieves. Instead, consider making payments or sending monetary gifts using a secure online platform. Finally, consider installing an outdoor security camera with motion sensors that have a clear view of your mailbox and porch. This can act as a deterrent to potential mail burglars while giving you solid evidence in the event of future mail tampering.

How Do I Report Someone Tampering With My Mail?

If you begin to suspect someone is tampering with or stealing your mail, the first thing you should do is take notes. This is an important part of gathering evidence for your eventual report. Write down what mail is missing, opened, or damaged. Some indicators of mail theft to watch for are packages that you are expecting never arriving or monthly bills not coming to your house anymore. Keep track of everything in a document for later reference. Emails to yourself or a trusted person can be a great way to do this as they will automatically include a timestamp.

There are several pieces of information you will need when reporting stolen or damaged mail that you should record in your notes. Firstly, describe what kind of mail it was, such as a package or a letter, and how much money your estimate it was worth. Note when you expected it to arrive, your mailing address, and where the package was mailed from. Finally, if you have the information available, write down whether it was standard priority mail, first-class, or any other category of mail that applies.

Other Information to Record

In addition to describing the mail in question, you should also jot down anything that might help identify the person tampering with your mail. This includes people you have seen loitering outside your home or have other reasons to suspect. The more details you can record about their appearance, the easier it will be for the authorities to track them down.

If you are not using a document that includes timestamps, you should also write down the date and time you suspect the tampering occurred. Even if you do not know the exact details, do your best to make an estimate.

Reporting the Mail Tampering

Once you have collected notes about the incident, you should report the mail tampering to the Postal Service. Keep in mind that if the tampering continues, you may have to make multiple reports, which is why keeping organized notes is so important. You should be able to report incidents online or over the phone. The postal service may contact you for follow-up information after your initial report. They will likely ask simple questions that can be found in your notes.

If your mail is stolen, you should also contact the police and file a report with them. They are the people who will be able to directly investigate the incident, and hopefully, stop it from happening again. In the meantime, you can take steps to stop your mail from being tampered with. Don't leave mail sitting in your mailbox for long periods of time, and try to avoid sending cash or other easily-stolen items through the mail.

Is Tampering With Mail a Federal Offense?

There are federal laws against tampering or stealing other people's mail in the United States. This means that mail tampering is considered a felony that can have serious consequences. If you think someone is stealing or opening your mail, you should not hesitate to start pursuing legal help and protection. While it may seem like a simple annoyance at first, mail tampering can lead to you becoming the victim of more serious crimes, such as identity theft.

In addition to federal laws against mail tampering, some states have their own restrictions and rules about it as well. This can lead to slightly different legal consequences for mail theft or tampering depending on where you are located.

Receiving Someone Else's Mail

While it may not seem like a crime, if you receive someone else's mail and do not return it to them, this can be considered mail tampering. This is something that happens frequently after moving to a new place, and it shouldn't be hard to mitigate. If you do receive mail addressed to someone else, you should simply return it to the sender. To do this, write, "Return to Sender," on the item and place it back in your mailbox. A postal worker will take it and send it back to where it came from.

What Is the Penalty for Mail Tampering?

Mail tampering or theft can have serious legal consequences including large fines and jail time. The punishment generally becomes more extreme depending on how much mail was damaged. For each item that was tampered with a person can face up to three years of time in prison and may have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars. Oftentimes mail tampering goes along with other crimes, such as trespassing, theft, and vandalism. These additional crimes have their own legal penalties which may also be taken into account by the legal system.

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Discussion Comments

anon1006848

What can you do legally if your landlord refuses to give you a mailbox and threatened eviction if I try to mount my own mailbox?

anon1005595

Well, is it tampering by the USPS crew who sorts mail and don't deliver mail addressed to you when management gives them a list of lease holders? But management will let you receive mail there if it's addressed in c/o lease holder name but the mail carrier takes it upon himself not to deliver mail even if it is properly addressed like it is required by management? Is this tampering with mail by USPS?

anon1005479

I would have done right thing by leaving it on their porch.

anon993023

What if a person keeps getting mail intended for another address, and they decide one day to write on one of the pieces of mail, a note requesting the mail carrier to get glasses? Can they get into trouble for that?

anon975545

What if you are expecting very important legal material and a "malicious person" interferes with delivery? Or throws it away or states, "person doesn't exist"? Why would a harsh penalty be ridiculous? Of course in any case, it should be viewed in context. I don't believe anyone will be tossed in prison because they threw someone's Fingerhut catalog away.

anon945918

My stepdad keeps getting packages, (first, personalized M&M's, second, ugly looking teenage girl shoes), that he never ordered, but they were sent to our address by UPS. What can we do to stop this? Should he cancel all his current credit cards and get new ones, and a new bank/check card?

anon349171

I am married but never took my husband's last name. Although we have a joint bank account, he hides the statements and when I found one (with both our names on the envelope), he ripped it out of my hands and made confetti out of it. Are there penalties for this?

anon346876

If a friend and share a PO Box, with my name being the owner and he passes away, do I attain all rights to his mail?

anon336523

Does it constitute mail tampering if someone you live with keeps refusing the packages that are being sent to your house while you are not home so they keep getting sent back to the companies?

anon335788

I winter in Florida for four or five months each year. All my mail is forwarded, with the exception of magazines, which once were, and other junk mail. I receive all my bills with the exception of my electric bill.

When I called the electric company, they told me they no longer forward bills. What? How can a large company refuse to send bills? Isn't this a form of mail tampering?

anon317580

You cannot send mail back marked "return to sender" any more. I received mail with a name unknown to me at my address and wrote "return to sender" on it, but the mail carrier gave it back to me with a note saying I have to apply postage to send it back.

anon301028

So my problem is I'm getting mail at the house for my father whom I haven't spoken to in over a decade. I don't care to talk to him, nor do I want to talk to tell him to get his stuff sent elsewhere.

How can I get the USPS to stop sending his mail here without "tampering" with it by throwing it away or having to repeatedly "write does not live here" on it?

Izzy78

@kentuckycat - You are probably right about the mail fraud. I believe I have seen that listed before when reading about media mail. I have also had packages opened like that before. If they open a package, though, they are required to put a stamp or sticker on the package saying that it was inspected. I guess that is just so that the recipient knows that the package wasn't opened by a stranger tampering with the mail.

I had never thought about money schemes being included in mail fraud. I suppose it is necessary, though. No matter how well-informed you try to make people, someone is always going to fall for those scams. By being able to charge people with mail fraud, I am sure it cuts down on the number of scams and eliminates the postal workers as vehicles for the scams. Nowadays, though, they can just turn to email to rip people off.

kentuckycat

@matthewc23 - Interesting question. I don't know for sure, but keeping someone's mail has to be some sort of offense. It would end with the same result as throwing it away - the person would never receive it. The article mentions "interfering" with the delivery of mail, so I guess it would probably be classified as that. I would assume the interfering part is intentionally vague so that the states have leeway to cover a lot of different circumstances.

As far as USPS mail tampering, I know that the workers at the post office can and do open certain packages for regular checks. I order and ship a lot of books via media mail. One of their policies is that the postal inspectors have the right to randomly search things marked as media mail to ensure that they are correctly marked. I am curious what happens if you try to send a regular package through media mail. I am betting that is a form of mail fraud.

matthewc23

Can't mail fraud also include mailing dangerous items? For example, after 9/11 the post offices started asking whether packages had any explosives, weapons, etc. If you ended up sending one of those items, what crimes could you be charged with?

Something else that I was thinking while reading this article is what would happen if you received someone else's mail and just kept it? You didn't open it or throw it away or damage it in any way. You just took it and threw it in a drawer. How would that be handled?

titans62

@Azuza - I doubt that you would be charged with a crime for throwing away an insignificant piece of mail. For example, I often get mail delivered to be that was intended for the people that lived in the house before. If it looks like something important that the person might need, I will always put throw it back in the mailbox marked as the wrong address. On the other hand, if the letter is clearly a credit card ad or just a random piece of junk mail, I just toss it, because I'm sure the person wouldn't want it anyway.

Obviously, if I get a neighbor's mail by accident, I will run it next door out of courtesy. I would expect them to do the same.

Monika

@Ted41 - I agree. It kind of reminds me of how they sometimes charge criminals with tax evasion and get them into jail that way, when they don't have enough evidence of other crimes. And I bet someone who was carrying out fraud through the parcel post would be extremely surprised to be charged with mail fraud instead of some other kind of fraud!

Also, I think it's good that federal district attorney's are selective with charging people with this though. If there's already enough evidence of other crimes, it seems like it would be a waste of time to prosecute for mail fraud also.

Ted41

I bet most people who use the post office have never heard of mail fraud before! I know I had never heard of it before I stumbled on this article. I think it's kind of cool that they have one more way of "getting" criminals that carry out scams through the mail though.

indemnifyme

@Azuza - I see what you're saying, but I think the penalties for messing with the United States Postal Service are there for a reason. If you get a piece of mail wrongly delivered to you, it's not that hard to give it to the neighbor it was intended for, or just mark "return to sender, incorrect address" and throw it back in the mail box!

I do agree that throwing away a piece of mail that arrived by accident isn't a malicious as mail theft or fraud, but it could still really mess up someone's day. What if they were waiting on a really important piece of mail and you just threw it away?

Azuza

Wow, the penalties seem kind of ridiculous for mail tampering. You shouldn't get time in jail for throwing someone else's mail away! What if it comes to your address by accident and you throw it away? Then it's definitely not mail theft, so the penalty shouldn't be so harsh.

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    • Mail tampering may lead to imprisonment.
      By: Ammentorp
      Mail tampering may lead to imprisonment.
    • Removing mail from someone else's mailbox may lead to a charge of mail tampering.
      By: d.c.photography
      Removing mail from someone else's mailbox may lead to a charge of mail tampering.
    • Taking mail from someone else's mailbox is a crime.
      By: petert2
      Taking mail from someone else's mailbox is a crime.
    • Interfering with mail may include removing postage stamps once a letter has been placed in a mailbox.
      By: Blue Moon
      Interfering with mail may include removing postage stamps once a letter has been placed in a mailbox.