What exactly are wire and mail fraud, and do they differ?

Most people have heard of wire fraud and mail fraud, but they really aren’t sure what they involve. If you’re being investigated for one of these federal crimes or have already been arrested, it’s crucial to know what they involve. 

Sometimes, people who are suspected of a number of very serious offenses are convicted only on one of these charges. That’s in part because they’re relatively easy to prove. Let’s take a brief look at both.

Wire fraud

This is increasingly more common than mail fraud because of the way we do most of our communication. It refers to fraud that involves any type of telecommunications or online activity – from phone calls to texts and emails to social media and more.

Under federal law, a person is guilty of wire fraud if they “voluntarily and intentionally devised or participated in a scheme to defraud another out of money” using “interstate wire communications.” These offenses can be carried out by one person or they can be part of a sophisticated scheme. The old “Nigerian prince” scam is just one example that has evolved over the decades.

The statute of limitations is five years from the time the alleged offense was committed and double that if the target was a financial institution. Individuals convicted can face two decades behind bars and a fine of as much as $250,000. These can both be much higher if there are special circumstances – for example, if the offender took advantage of a national emergency to defraud someone.

Mail fraud

Mail fraud is essentially the same type of crime as wire fraud, except that it involves “the mailing of a letter, etc., for the purpose of executing the scheme.” It doesn’t have to involve the U.S. Postal Service. It can involve sending something via a shipping company like FedEx, for example. Even though it’s a federal crime, it doesn’t have to take place across state lines. 

Insurance and credit card fraud are two examples. Many mail fraud scams target people through the mail – many of whom may not even have computers, like elderly people. The penalties are similar to those for wire fraud.

The federal government takes both of these crimes very seriously. That’s why if you even suspect you may be under investigation, it’s wise to seek legal guidance.


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