Under federal law, it is a crime to transmit “false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises” through the U.S. Mail. Each transmission may be charged separately, thereby escalating the sentence that may be assessed upon conviction. The mail fraud statute permits conviction relies on proof of a fraudulent use of the mail service rather than the details or success of the scheme.
A conviction for a single count of mail fraud carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison, fine, or both. If the charge states that the violation involved a financial institution, the penalties may include up to 30 years in prison, up to $1 million in fines, or both.
The Department of Justice Criminal Resource Manual states that “Prosecutions of fraud ordinarily should not be undertaken if the scheme employed consists of some isolated transactions between individuals, involving minor loss to the victims, in which case the parties should be left to settle their differences by civil or criminal litigation in the state courts. Serious consideration, however, should be given to the prosecution of any scheme which in its nature is directed to defrauding a class of persons, or the general public, with a substantial pattern of conduct.” (USAM 9-43.100 Prosecution Policy Relating to Mail Fraud and Wire Fraud)
Key Cases Interpreting 18 U.S.C. § 1343 (2005)
Schmuck v. United States, 489 U.S. 705 (1989): Elements of mail fraud are the existence of a scheme to defraud and the use of the U.S. Mail to carry out the scheme.
United States v. Lebovitz, 669 F.2d 894, 898 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 456 U.S. 929 (1982): “The gist of the offense of mail fraud is the use of mails by someone to carry out some essential element of the fraudulent scheme or artifice.”