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Falling victim to mail fraud can cost you money, time and frustration. Signs of mail fraud include prize offers for contests you don't recall entering, urgent messages targeting seniors or veterans, housing assistance that seems too good to be true and more.
To avoid becoming a victim, understand the different types of mail fraud and follow our seven tips to help deliver you from mail fraud difficulties.
What Is Mail Fraud?
Mail fraud is any scheme that aims to trick you out of money or personal information by way of the U.S. mail, according to the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), the agency that investigates mail fraud in the U.S.
Mail fraud includes scams initiated through mailed materials (letters or postcards, for example), and encompasses schemes that originate elsewhere (online or over the phone, for example) but use the mail as part of their execution.
Types of Mail Fraud
There may be as many forms of mail fraud as there are types of mail, but the USPIS has identified several broad categories of mail fraud, based on their content and the victims they target.
Contest and Sweepstakes Scams
Everyone loves winning something, and these schemes use the excitement of a promised prize to catch victims off guard. It typically begins with a letter or postcard that tells you you've won a sweepstakes or contest and instructs you to call a phone number or visit a website to collect your winnings.
That's where the real trouble starts: The impressive-looking website may prompt you to enter your Social Security number or other personal information to "verify your identity" or ask for bank account information "to deposit your winnings." If you call the phone number, you'll likely get a fast-talking hard-sell expert who might pressure you to give up personal information or ask you to pay a fee or buy a subscription before you can collect your prize.
Scams Targeting Veterans
The many legitimate programs for veterans and courtesies extended to them by grateful businesses and civic groups provide cover for illicit come-ons targeting the same population.
- Promises of lucrative work for veterans that are recruitments to bogus pyramid schemes.
- Mailers that promise a veterans discount on service that leads to a high-pressure sales pitch or prepayment for work that's never done.
- Official-looking letters that urge immediate action to prevent loss of military pension or Veterans Affairs benefits but instead point to a bogus phone number or website designed to extract funds or personal information.
Scams That Prey on Seniors
Criminals often target senior citizens to exploit vulnerabilities in their understanding of technology and their reliance on services such as Social Security and Medicare.
Potential scams include:
- Letters purporting to be from government agencies, warning that action must be taken to prevent loss of services.
- Mailings warning a potential victim that they could lose their home or apartment unless unpaid taxes or fees are paid immediately.
Housing Assistance Fraud
Surging home prices, skyrocketing rents and the expiration of pandemic-related bans on foreclosure and eviction have many individuals and families scrambling for housing options. Always eager to prey on desperation, scammers are issuing mailers offering bogus housing relief, home placement assistance and other services—all for a fee, of course.
Mail Theft-Related Fraud
In legal terms, snatching mail for criminal purposes isn't considered mail fraud, but stolen mail—grabbed from a home mailbox or a postal drop box—can lead to check forgery and identity theft:
- Personal checks enclosed in outbound mail, from bill payments to birthday cards, can be used to obtain bank account numbers and to make phony blank checks, which may be sold in illicit online marketplaces.
- Inbound mail containing benefits checks can be stolen, forged and cashed—or deposited as part of a scheme to open bogus bank accounts in the intended recipient's name.
7 Tips to Protect Yourself From Mail Fraud and Theft
The following tips can help you thwart mail fraud and mail theft.
- Beware excessive urgency. When government agencies, financial institutions and insurance companies notify you by mail, they'll give you adequate time to respond, either by responding via mail or connecting with them online or by phone. Mail that demands instant action to stave off dire consequences is designed to cause panic, which in turn can cause the recipient to make rash decisions.
- Verify, verify, verify. Criminals can duplicate stationery and create fraudulent mail that looks legitimate. If you receive any mail that prompts you to make an unexpected payment or to follow up on action you don't recall taking (such as entering a contest or requesting product information), don't rely on a web link or phone number included in the mailing. Look up the purported sender online and use contact information on their website to follow up and confirm whether the mailing is legitimate. If you doubt the authenticity of correspondence from a government agency, look up its phone number and call directly to verify.
- Be skeptical. It's a cliche for good reason: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Outrageous discounts and fabulous prizes may come your way once in a great while, but empty promises are cheap and plentiful. Before you respond to a mailing that offers the "opportunity of a lifetime," do some detective work to make sure it's legit. Do a web search for the name of the organization making the pitch and check that any web addresses it provides match up with the official site. Check with the Better Business Bureau or your state attorney general to see if there are any complaints against the organization.
- Hang up on hard sells. Even after doing all the due diligence described above, you may find yourself on the phone with a fast-talking salesperson pressuring you to make an immediate deposit, to provide credit card or bank account information, or just pushing you toward buying something you don't want or need. Remember that you're in control of your own conversations and end the discussion. Make an excuse if you like (though seasoned con artists are adept at redirecting those), or just hang up. Don't worry about being rude when someone's trying to rip you off.
- Sign up for Informed Delivery. In many parts of the U.S., this free service lets you receive email images of postal mail before it's delivered: It's scanned through the Postal Service's automated mail-sorting equipment. This can help with mail fraud in a couple ways:
- It can alert you to potential theft of mail that's intended for you but that you never receive.
- If you're uncertain about the legitimacy of a piece of mail, it makes it easy to forward an image of the envelope to a friend or family member who can help investigate its origins―or to authorities if you believe you're being scammed.
- Avoid paper checks. Mail thieves can't take advantage of inbound or outbound checks that aren't in your mailbox to begin with. Whenever possible, have government benefits, bills and paychecks directly withdrawn from or deposited into your bank account, rather than mailed as checks. And to the extent possible, leave checks out of birthday and holiday cards, and purchase gift cards online or transfer funds electronically using peer-to-peer payment apps such as Venmo or Zelle, which are free to use for personal money exchanges.
- Secure your mailbox. Mailboxes that lock are common in apartment buildings and many condominium communities, but if you don't have one, consider getting one for your residence. Other options for keeping your mailbox safe:
- Get a security camera or camera-equipped doorbell that monitors your mailbox.
- Rent a locking mailbox at your post office or a local third-party "mailbox store."
- Use the Postal Service's Hold Mail option when traveling to prevent mail from piling up in your mailbox, which thieves may take as an invitation.
- Whenever in doubt about the security of a letter or package you're sending, bring it directly to the post office.
How to Report Mail Fraud
- Visit the U.S. Postal Inspection Service's crime-reporting webpage.
- Click "Report" in the box labeled "Mail Fraud."
- Complete the electronic form in as much detail as possible.
- Wait for the USPIS to contact you with further instructions.
How to Report Mail Theft
Visit the U.S. Postal Service's Email Us webpage.
- If you have a tracking number for your missing mail enter it; if there's no tracking number, click on "Where is my mail?"
- Answer Yes or No to the query "Was the mail piece destined for a U.S. address?"
- Click the "Daily Mail Delivery" option on the "What's the reason for your inquiry?" page.
- Choose "Theft of Mail" from the "What's the reason for your email?" pulldown menu.
- Enter the date of the mail theft (as best you can determine), in the pop-up calendar.
- Complete the email form, providing as much detail as possible, and click Next to report the incident.
- The Postal Service will contact you with further instructions or information.
The Bottom Line
As with many forms of fraud, awareness of the problem and a little extra vigilance go a long way toward preventing trouble. Following these tips should help you anticipate postal scams, and ideally help you ward off mail fraud and mail theft. If you're concerned that your personal data has been compromised through mail fraud or any other crime, consider using Experian IdentityWorks℠ to monitor and alert you when there's new activity on your Experian credit report. Unauthorized credit activity can be an early warning of identity theft, and credit monitoring is another tool that can help you stamp out financial fraud.