When a person uses postal mail or electronic communication as a means to commit fraud, he or she will also receive mail fraud or wire fraud charges. These federal crimes result in significant prison time for a conviction when the transmission crosses state or national lines.

Below is an explanation of how the law defines mail and wire fraud and the potential penalties for these crimes.

What constitutes mail or wire fraud?

Sending communications, receipts or contracts associated with fraudulent activities falls into the category of mail or wire fraud. The person can receive mail fraud charges whether he or she used the U.S. Postal Service or a private mail carrier.

Email phishing and spam scams, as well as telemarketing schemes, constitute wire fraud. The offender must have had intent to defraud the recipients of the electronic transmission and gained money or property by doing so. The so-called “Nigerian Prince” scheme is one of the most common examples of wire fraud.

Although mail and wire fraud usually occur in conjunction with another crime, the law treats them as separate offenses. Often, a person charged with these types of fraud may also face charges of kickbacks, bribery, extortion, conspiracy, money laundering and racketeering.

What are the possible penalties for mail or wire fraud?

An individual who receives a conviction for mail fraud could receive up to 20 years in prison along with a fine of up to $250,000 for an individual and $500,000 for an organization. When a person commits mail or wire fraud and the fraud impacts a financial institution or involves emergency or disaster benefits, the sentence could be as long as 30 years in prison with fines reaching $1 million.

These penalties apply to each count of mail or wire fraud, which means a person convicted of multiple counts could spend life in prison and owe several million dollars in fines. Individuals convicted of these crimes often must pay restitution to the victims and/or give up property associated with the crimes.