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How to Avoid Mail and Wire Fraud

Woman looking through her mail to illustrate mail fraud
September 30, 2016

Mail and wire fraud defined:

Mail fraud and wire fraud are similar schemes, both intended to defraud a victim through dishonest practices. The only real difference is the means of communication they use: Mail fraud is conducted via the mail and wire fraud is a fraud perpetrated using an electronic means of communication (wire, radio or television). Either way, both schemes are designed to separate you from your money and are highly punishable offenses.

What You
Should Know

Mail and wire fraud both attempt to trick victims into paying for fake goods and services.

What You
Can Do

Be suspicious of any “free” gifts or services that ask you to pay a fee up front.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service investigates roughly 3,000 mail fraud cases per year, resulting in some 1,300 arrests.1

What to watch out for

Beware of these common “too good to be true” mail fraud schemes:

Sweepstakes and free prizes – Typically a company asks you to “claim your prize,” but will require you to pay a “processing” fee and pressure you to give out your credit card number. This is a sign of a scam, and should be ignored immediately.

Free vacations – To be eligible you will either be required to pay a service charge or to purchase a membership in a travel club. Again, this is a scam.

Government look-a-like mail – The mailing may look official, but it typically contains sweepstakes solicitations or requests for donations to political causes. Carefully read the material inside the envelope to determine if it’s really from a government agency.

Phony inheritance schemes – If you receive a notification in the mail from an “estate locator” saying that there is an unclaimed inheritance waiting for you, this is likely a scam, especially if they ask for your bank information. (These are now seen more often on email.)

Advance-fee loans – If you’ve had trouble getting a loan you may become the target of an advance-fee loan scheme, where a con artist offers you a “guaranteed” loan for a fee paid in advance. Don’t do it! Only work with legitimate lenders.

Credit repair and credit card schemes – Scam artists will offer you “credit repair” services. After paying a large fee, all you receive is a list of banks that offer a “secured” credit card. “Secured” cards are only issued after you deposit enough money to cover any charges you make and are offered by many banks.

Foreign lotteries – Most—if not all—foreign lottery offers are bogus. They don’t come from foreign government agencies or licensees. Instead, they come from con artists who intend to take your money and give you nothing in return.

Chain letters – Don’t waste your time or money feeling pressured or tempted to participate in chain letter schemes. You’ll likely receive little or no money in return. What’s more, if you mail chain letters you could be committing a federal crime if it’s considered mail fraud.

Work-at-home offers – Work-at-home schemes require you to invest your money before you learn how a plan works or before you are sent instructions. The work you are asked to do often continues the fraud by getting other victims involved.

Unsolicited merchandise – If a company sends you a gift in the mail you didn’t order (such as books, hair products, a tote bag), and pressures you to pay for the “gift,” do not feel guilty and do so. You’re under no legal obligation to pay for it or return it.

Fees charged for normally free services – Beware of mail solicitations that try to get you to pay a fee for government services that are available for free (such as child support collection assistance, unclaimed income tax refunds, property tax exemptions).

Fake check scams – Typically, you will receive a money order or check in the mail with an explanation that you are getting a refund or you’ve won a sweepstakes. All you have to do is deposit the check and wire back a portion and you get to keep the remainder. But the check or money order is counterfeit. It will be returned to your bank unpaid, but you will be liable for the amount you wired.

What to do if you’ve been victimized

If you believe you’ve been victimized by a scam involving the U.S. Mail, you can get help by contacting your nearest Postal Inspection Service office in one of three ways:

  • Call 1-877-876-2455 (press option “4” to report suspected mail fraud).
  • Visit postalinspectors.uspis.gov to report suspected fraud online.
  • Mail your queries to this address:

    CRIMINAL INVESTIGATIONS SERVICE CENTER
    ATTN: MAIL FRAUD
    222 S RIVERSIDE PLZ STE 1250
    CHICAGO IL 60606-6100

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