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Mail fraud is the illegal use of the postal system to cheat people out of their money or personal information for purposes of identity theft or other crimes.
Mail fraud encompasses scams that use the mail in many different ways. It includes bogus come-ons delivered to your mailbox and schemes that begin on the phone or online and prompt you to use the mail to complete fraudulent transactions. Here's what you need to know about mail fraud and how to protect yourself.
Signs of Mail Fraud
Some mail fraud scams are old-school ancestors of email ploys and phishing schemes common today in the digital realm: Chain letters, requests for money to help transfer nonexistent bank holdings and bogus sweepstakes prize notices all originated (and persist today) as forms of mail fraud.
Other classic mail fraud scams involve letters or postcards that invite you to call a phone number to purchase merchandise, services or investments at incredible prices. If you call, you're greeted by a high-pressure salesperson urging you to act immediately to get in on the fictitious or deceptively hyped deal—by putting down a deposit, supplying bank or credit card credentials, or giving up bank account or other personal information.
Still other examples of mail fraud are hybrids of cybercrime and old-fashioned postal scams that begin with emails or text messages threatening to freeze your bank or credit card account or cut off your health insurance or government benefits unless you mail out payment immediately.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), the federal law enforcement agency that investigates mail fraud, notes that many scammers target specific demographic groups. These include:
- Retirees and other seniors: Scams targeting older Americans often play on their dependence on Social Security or Medicare, demanding payment to prevent loss of those services.
- Job hunters: Fueling false hope is one of the cruelest tactics scammers employ. A mailed invitation to an employment fair or job interview could actually be a recruitment pitch for a pyramid marketing scheme or other shady business enterprise.
- Veterans: Broadly speaking, the USPIS notes, veterans are predisposed to trust fellow veterans and pro-veteran groups, and scammers often exploit that trust by impersonating those kinds of organizations.
How to Protect Yourself From Mail Fraud
Here are some tips for keeping yourself safe from mail fraud:
- Develop healthy skepticism. In many respects, the best approach to avoiding mail fraud is questioning mail you receive. If you get an unexpected mailing with an offer that sounds too good to be true, recognize that it may very well be and proceed with caution (or ignore it altogether). Similarly, keep in mind that mail you receive, no matter how official it may look, may not be what it appears to be. Awareness that fraud can occur is the first step in making sure it doesn't happen to you.
- Ask "why" before giving out information. Posing questions to the organizations that contact you is also good practice, especially if they're asking you (in a questionnaire, online form or in a live conversation) to furnish personal information. Any request for your Social Security number, checking account number or credit card numbers should be a red flag.
- Do your homework. Scammers are adept at impersonating trusted sources such as government agencies, financial institutions and charitable organizations. If you receive unexpected mail from an organization you know, or from one you've never heard of that sounds legitimate, check it out before you drop a check in the mail or call its phone number:
- Visit the organization's website and see if the phone number in a mailing matches the ones posted there.
- Do a web search of the organization's name and the word "scam."
- Check your state attorney general's website for complaints or investigations into the organization's practices.
- Beware hard-sell tactics. If a salesperson or electronic communications are pressuring you to mail a check, money order or gift cards immediately, request full details in writing. If you get pushback, end the exchange. If they start to threaten you physically, recognize that they are almost certainly bluffing in hope that you'll comply out of fear. Get law enforcement involved if their threats sound credible.
- Don't pay to collect. If you've received a financial windfall such as an inheritance, insurance payout or sweepstakes prize, you won't have to spend anything to collect it. Mailings or follow-up pitches that promise a big payday in exchange for "processing" or "transfer" fees or other payments are not to be trusted.
- Avoid elaborate payments. Legitimate businesses and charities won't insist that you pay with money orders or gift cards, and you should never trust anyone who offers to make a deposit in your checking account and then have you transfer part of it back to them. In such cases, the original deposit is inevitably canceled, and you end up "returning" funds from a transaction that never actually cleared.
How to Report Mail Fraud
The USPIS's website provides instructions on how to report mail fraud, along with an interactive form for detailing and submitting a complaint.
Consider Identity Theft Protection
If you know or suspect your personal information has been compromised by mail fraud, free credit monitoring from Experian can alert you to unexpected changes in your credit report and help you respond quickly to some types of credit fraud. The more comprehensive paid-subscription Experian IdentityWorksSM service adds identity theft insurance coverage and alerts you if your personal information is exposed anywhere online, including on the hidden sites known as the dark web.