Understanding wire and mail fraud

Wire fraud and mail fraud are among the most commonly prosecuted “white collar” federal crimes. However, exactly what they involve can be hard for most people to explain. 

If you’re under investigation or facing charges for one or both – or simply want to avoid getting caught up in these offenses — it’s crucial to understand them better. Let’s take a brief look at both.

Wire fraud 

This has become more common than mail fraud since more of our communications are online than in the past. Wire fraud relates to online or telecommunications activity. This can include phone calls, emails, texts and social media

A person commits wire fraud if they “devised or participated in a scheme to defraud another out of money” using “interstate wire communications.” Wire fraud can be as simple as someone who uses a “romance scam” to get a person to send them money via PayPal or a complex plan involving a number of participants and victims. 

Someone convicted of wire fraud can be sentenced to as long as 20 years in federal prison and/or fined up to a quarter-million dollars. If there are “special circumstances,” the penalties can be higher — for example, if the activity involved victims of a natural disaster.

Mail fraud 

Mail fraud is basically what it sounds like: The “mailing of a letter, etc., for the purpose of executing the scheme.” Credit card fraud often involves using the mail. However, using any kind of shipping company or courier for illegal activity can also constitute mail fraud. 

It’s important to note that, unlike many federal offenses, mail fraud doesn’t have to occur over two or more states. The federal penalties for mail fraud are similar to those for wire fraud.

Both offenses often involve taking financial advantage of vulnerable people. The federal government treats them both as serious crimes. Evidence for them is typically relatively easy to gather because there’s a paper (or electronic) trail. Therefore, people the government suspects of far more offenses are sometimes ultimately only prosecuted for one or both of these because they’re the most provable.