What Is Mail Tampering?

Renee Booker
Renee Booker
Mail tampering may lead to imprisonment.
Mail tampering may lead to imprisonment.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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Discussion Comments


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?


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


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?


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.


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?


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?


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?


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?


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?


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.


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?


@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.


@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.


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?


@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.


@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.


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.


@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?


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.