What Is Mail Tampering and Is It a Crime?

Quick Answer

It’s against the law to steal, destroy or obstruct the delivery of someone else’s mail. But that doesn’t stop criminals who want to steal cash, checks or sensitive information. Help protect yourself by keeping sensitive or valuable items out of your mailbox.

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Mail theft and tampering are on the rise as criminals target mail carriers and mailboxes to gain access to checks and personal information. Criminals might steal envelopes with cash or checks, which they can "wash" and reuse to commit check fraud. They may also be able to use this personal information to commit identity theft, or sell it online for a quick profit.

What Is Considered Mail Tampering?

Legal definitions and consequences for mail tampering can vary depending on the different state and federal laws. In general, it's a crime to steal, destroy, deface, buy or fraudulently obtain mail—and to open someone else's mail or obstruct the delivery of their mail. It's also a crime to deface, tear down or destroy mailboxes or other receptacles used for mail delivery.

But the context of the situation can matter. Moving mail, which could be considered obstructing delivery in some cases, might not be a crime if you don't have malicious intent. Perhaps you're moving a neighbor's package from their front porch to a more well-hidden spot because you're worried about porch pirates.

You're also not stealing mail if a neighbor asks you to collect their mail while they're out of town—they can even give you permission to open the mail if they want. And you aren't necessarily committing a crime if you accidentally open a letter that was addressed to someone else but delivered to your mailbox.

If you accidentally open someone else's mail, you can bring it to them and apologize. Or, if the person doesn't live in the building, seal it and write "not at this address" on a blank space on the envelope. Then hand it to your mail person or place it in your mailbox.

Is Tampering With Mail a Federal Offense?

Tampering with mail is a federal offense, and you can read the different mail-related crimes in Chapter 83—Postal Service of the U.S. Code. Sections 1701 through 1710 are related to the obstruction, destruction and theft of mail and mail-related property.

Stealing or unlawfully possessing stolen mail could be punishable by a fine and up to five years in prison. Other mail-related federal laws can also apply and lead to additional charges. For example, stealing or possessing a USPS master key or using the stolen mail to commit mail fraud may be separate crimes.

Some states have additional laws regarding mail theft, tampering and related crimes. Even if there isn't a specific law that covers stealing mail, stealing someone else's personal property (including their mail) could be a crime. Depending on the state laws and situation, tampering with mail may be a misdemeanor or felony. For example, the consequences for stealing one letter might be different than stealing mail from many people.

Signs of Mail Tampering

You might be rightfully worried about mail tampering if you notice:

  • Someone tried to open your mailbox. If your mailbox was forced open, that's a clear sign that someone tried to tamper with or successfully stole your mail.
  • Your letters are open. Look out for envelopes that were opened and check to make sure all the contents are still there and intact.
  • Your letters are resealed. Similarly, if you notice that mail that was opened and then resealed, that could be the result of tampering.

The USPS's sorting machines and post office workers might accidentally tear, damage or open your mail. However, when this happens, the USPS may place the mail in a plastic bag with a note explaining what happened.

In some cases, the USPS can also legally open and inspect your mail. For example, if you send a package using Media Mail, they can inspect and verify that the items are eligible for that type of postage.

How to Avoid Mail Tampering

You can help protect yourself from mail theft and tampering if you:

  • Check your mailbox immediately. If you know when your mail person generally delivers the mail, make a point of checking your mailbox right away. At a minimum, try to check your mailbox every evening to collect the day's mail.
  • Lock your mailbox. Adding a lock to your curbside mailbox could also help protect you from mail theft. There are varying types of mailboxes and locks. Heavy-duty options might be more expensive, but they can also help deter more thieves.
  • Use a USPS Hold Mail service when you're away. Protect yourself when you're on vacation or a work trip with a USPS mail hold, which you can use to have the USPS hold your mail at your local Post Office for up to 30 days. This has the added benefit of preventing a mail buildup that could clue someone in that you're not at home.
  • Send mail with Hold for PickUp or require a signature. When sending important packages or letters, you could use Hold for PickUp to require the recipient to get the package from their local post office. Or require a signature for a package or letter.
  • Don't forget to file a change of address. When you move, you can submit a change-of-address request to the USPS, and the USPS will forward many types of mail to your new address. You can use a temporary request if you're only moving for a short time. If you're moving permanently, you'll still have to change your address with other agencies and organizations, such as the DMV and financial institutions.
  • Get a P.O. Box. You can apply for a P.O. Box at your local post office and have your mail delivered to your box instead of your home.

You can also sign up for Informed Delivery, a free service that can email you images of the letter-sized mail you'll receive each day, and manage USPS packages, so you'll know if something was stolen. Additionally, think of ways to help keep sensitive information or valuables out of the mail.

For example, you can ask relatives and friends to avoid sending checks or cash to you through the mail. You could also sign up for electronic statements for your credit cards and bank accounts to keep these statements out of the mail.

Dealing With Mail Tampering and Mail Fraud

If you notice someone has tampered with or stolen your mail, you can report the crime to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service online or by phone. Tampering with mail can also be the first step in a more serious crime—including identity theft. You may want to add fraud alerts to your credit reports and regularly monitor your credit reports for suspicious changes.

Experian offers a free credit monitoring service. Or, a paid program like Experian IdentityWorksSM includes credit monitoring and looks for your personal information in other databases, including on the dark web. It also comes with identity theft insurance, which can help cover the cost of recovering your identity.