Don’t Get Charged with Mail or Wire Fraud – 10 Illegal Schemes to Avoid
We’ve all gotten that suspicious email from a “prince” promising millions if you help move some money. And most of us have tossed out a “You just won!” sweepstakes mailer, knowing it’s too good to be true. These are just a couple of examples of the many mail and wire fraud schemes out there that can quickly land you in hot water.
While mail fraud involves using the postal service or mail carriers to carry out fraud, wire fraud involves using communications like the internet, a phone, TV, or electronic funds transfers to commit fraud.
Mail and wire fraud are serious federal crimes that carry fines of up to $1 million and prison sentences of up to 30 years per violation. If you’re under investigation or have been indicted for fraud involving mail or electronic communications, it’s essential to understand the commonly prosecuted crimes—and to work with an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer.
Here are ten common mail and wire fraud examples you should avoid at all costs.
#1: Fake Lotteries and Sweepstakes
Who wouldn’t want to get a call saying you just won millions in some random drawing you never entered? This type of mail fraud uses enticing prizes to trick you into sending money to claim your “winnings” or cover “fees.”
These scammers buy lead lists to target potential victims and send official-looking letters claiming you won a big prize or sweepstakes. To collect your winnings, you just need to pay a small processing fee, tax, or shipping cost. Of course, the prizes never materialize.
#2: Phishing Scams
Emails, texts, and calls asking you to verify personal information like your Social Security or bank account number are another very common type of mail and wire fraud. These phishing scams use urgency and familiar branding to trick someone into handing over their sensitive info for identity theft.
Scammers often pose as banks, government agencies, or businesses and send messages warning of a security breach or account closure. They’ll include links to fake but convincing login screens to “verify” your info immediately—stealing account access, Social Security numbers, and more.
#3: Chain Letters
Whether paper or digital, chain letters promise big rewards if you send money up the chain. But just like pyramid schemes, most participants lose their “investment” while only the creators profit.
Chain letters date back to the 1930s but now propagate via email, social media, and texts. They claim to give the recipients access to a pattern of gifting or investing where each person pays a small amount and ultimately receives thousands of dollars—if they get enough people involved down the line. In reality, the chain inevitably fails, and most individuals end up losing money.
#4: Charity Scams
After natural disasters and around the holidays, fake charities proliferate online and through the mail. Check out the IRS website to confirm a charity is real before you donate, and avoid emotional appeals with no facts about how your money will be used.
Scammers capitalize on generosity by creating convincing charity names, websites, and mailers to collect donations. But the money lines their own pockets rather than helping any cause.
#5: Romance Scams
On dating sites and social media, sincere-sounding strangers build affectionate relationships and then ask for money for supposed emergencies or travel to finally meet you. In reality, the scammer invented the whole persona to manipulate the other person out of thousands.
Romance scammers patiently build relationships for weeks or months before asking for favors. They have elaborate excuses why they can’t video chat or meet in person, often claiming to be overseas or in the military. Eventually, they request wire transfers or gift cards to help deal with a sudden medical, family, or travel emergency.
#6: Ponzi Schemes
Criminals like Bernie Madoff use mail and wire communications to round up “investors” in investment scams promising ridiculous returns. But the money from later victims actually pays off the earlier backers, eventually crumbling under its own weight when new suckers can’t be found.
Master scammers like Madoff create an aura of exclusivity around fake investment opportunities with consistent high returns and limited spots. Their operations depend on continuous recruitment of new investors to pay off existing ones—until the scheme inevitably collapses.
#7: Email and Internet Scams
From fake tech support callers to emails warning your account will be shut down, online scammers have endless hooks to reel in victims. Tech support scams start with a phone call or pop-up warning of viruses. The “helpful” agent wants remote access or direct payment to fix the nonexistent issues. Account closure threats try to panic you into clicking phishing links or confirming your password.
#8: Fake Invoices
Scammers take advantage of accounts payable workflows by sending invoices demanding payment for services or products that were never ordered or rendered. They hope slipping in fake bills among legitimate vendor invoices can net them easy money.
Fraudsters mimic legitimate business names and send professional-looking invoices. The invoices threaten consequences like being sent to collections or hurting your business credit score. But unless you have an actual business relationship, you have no obligation to pay unsolicited bills.
#9 Tax Return Scams
Criminals use a variety of mail and wire schemes to file fraudulent tax returns and steal refunds before taxpayers can file. One common technique is stealing mailed tax documents or hacking into preparers’ email systems to acquire Social Security numbers and other personal information. The criminals then mail or electronically file returns using the stolen details to claim bogus refunds.
Another tactic relies on purchasing stolen identities online. Scammers mail or e-file returns with this information to IRS and state agencies seeking fraudulent refunds. More elaborate set-ups establish fake exempt organizations to claim much larger charity refunds through the mail and electronic tax filing platforms.
#10 Disaster Relief Fraud
Following natural disasters and crises, scammers unfortunately take advantage of relief aid programs. Examples include filing inflated damage claims with government agencies, providing false applicant information to get relief funds, and using stolen IDs to apply for benefits in someone else’s name.
One major example is fraud related to the COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), with scammers managing to net millions in relief loans.
Caught Engaging in Mail or Wire Fraud? You Need Legal Representation
If the feds start questioning you about potentially engaging in any mail or wire fraud crimes, you need to talk to a Texas Criminal Justice Attorney immediately. You could be facing serious penalties – we’re talking years of federal prison time and fines.
Trying to navigate the criminal justice system alone against federal fraud charges is incredibly risky. Our federal criminal defense lawyers can be invaluable in building your strongest case, such as:
- Pinpointing flaws or lack of evidence in the prosecution’s case
- Developing an aggressive defense strategy to fight the charges
- Negotiating for reduced penalties or diversion programs
- Protecting your rights throughout the investigation and trial
At Whalen Law Office, our federal mail and wire fraud attorneys have represented numerous complex white-collar cases over decades of combined experience. If you face any charges or believe you are under investigation, contact us for a case evaluation today.