What should you do with mail that isn’t yours?

January 31, 2024
Minh Mai

Many people have received a piece of mail intended for someone else. In fact, from March 1 through September 30, 2020, the U.S. Postal Service reported almost 73 million misrouted First-Class letters. While this was only .15% of the First-Class letters they processed during that time, that’s still an awful lot of people’s mail ending up at the wrong address.

So what should you do if a mail piece arrives in your mailbox and you aren’t the intended recipient? In this article, we’ll cover what you should (and shouldn't) do to avoid any issues, as well as how the best virtual mailbox services can eliminate the problem entirely.

Understanding the legalities of getting mail that isn’t yours

A person’s mail is their private property, and delivery to the wrong address doesn’t change that. The U.S. takes postal crimes seriously, and opening, tampering with, or destroying mail that isn’t yours can potentially land you in a lot of legal trouble.

To demonstrate the point, let’s examine the federal laws about receiving someone else’s mail.

Federal laws governing mail handling

Section 1708 of Title 18 of the United States Code specifically addresses offenses related to mail theft — in three paragraphs of pretty dense legalese. In summary, this law states that anyone who steals someone else’s mail (or knowingly receives stolen mail) can face fines and up to five years imprisonment.

Privacy rights

The U.S. classifies opening or otherwise tampering with someone else’s mail as an invasion of privacy rights. The Fourth Amendment gives American citizens the right to privacy. While this right most commonly applies to law enforcement searches, it’s also relevant to things like opening someone else’s mail. 

To enforce this constitutional right to privacy, the federal government has adopted a long list of laws designed to protect the privacy rights of U.S. citizens.

Consequences of tampering with mail

Tampering with or mishandling someone else's mail can lead to stiff legal consequences. 

The exact definition of “tampering with mail” varies from one jurisdiction to another, but it includes things like opening, destroying, or damaging someone else’s mail. In most states, tampering with mail is a misdemeanor with penalties including up to two years in jail.

What to do when you get someone else’s mail

If a letter or package that doesn’t have your name on it turns up in your mailbox, just follow these three steps to resolve the issue and get the mail to its rightful owner. 

Step 1: Mark it as “Return to Sender”

The first step in handling misdelivered mail is to clearly mark it as "Return to Sender." Grab a pen and write those exact words on the front of the envelope or package. This informs postal workers that the item went to the correct address, and they will send it back to the sender. 

If you want to explain any other details (like letting the post office know that it’s a recurring issue), you can attach a sticky note to the parcel. However, you should never write anything except “Return to Sender” on the parcel itself.

Step 2: Place the mail back in the mailbox

After marking the mail as “Return to Sender,” you should place it back in your mailbox so the mail carrier can pick it up. You can also place the mail item in any USPS collection box.

Step 3: Notify the post office

If misdelivered mail is a recurring issue at your current address, you should notify the local post office so they can look into the matter. They may be able to contact the intended recipient to let them know that they need to submit a change of address form. Or they may start automatically returning the misaddressed mail to the sender. 

You can let USPS know about the problem by visiting your local office and speaking with the postmaster, calling customer service, or leaving a sticky note on the mail item.

What to avoid doing with someone else’s mail

Now that you know the steps you should take when you get someone else’s mail, let’s go over the things you definitely should not do. Below is a list of a few inappropriate (and, in some cases, illegal) actions you should be sure to avoid.

Don’t open the mail

There’s never a good reason to open mail that doesn’t belong to you. Not only is this a serious invasion of someone else’s privacy, but it also falls under tampering and is against the law. To prevent any suspicion of tampering, it’s important to avoid damaging the package or envelope in any way while it is in your possession.

Don’t cross out the recipient’s name

This is a common mistake that people make when they get mail that isn’t theirs, but it doesn’t help the situation. If you cross out the recipient’s name, the mail carrier won’t know who the mail item is intended for and will render it undeliverable. 

The only thing you should write on the envelope or package itself are the words “Return to Sender.” If you need to include any other information, write it on a separate note.

Don’t damage the envelope or packaging

Damaging the envelope or packaging could make it seem like you were trying to open or otherwise tamper with it, even if that wasn’t your intention. What’s more, it’s just good etiquette to respect someone else’s property. You don’t know what’s inside the package or envelope or how fragile or valuable it might be, so treat it with care.

Don’t throw the mail away

We get it — when you receive a piece of mail that isn’t yours, you might want to just toss it in the trash and avoid the hassle of returning it. But beyond being morally wrong, it’s also legally wrong and subject to punishment by law.

There’s no way for you to tell what’s important mail and what isn’t when you aren’t the intended recipient. What you consider junk mail might be vital to another person. When you add in the fact that discarding or destroying mail that isn’t yours is against the law, it’s always best to return it instead.

Don’t fill out a change of address form for the recipient

If you continue to receive mail intended for a previous resident of the property, you can notify the U.S. Postal Service to let them know that it’s a recurring issue. 

However, you should never attempt to fill out a change of address form on the previous tenant’s behalf. This is an illegal and inappropriate thing to do, and it isn’t possible anyway unless you know the addressee’s new address.

Avoid getting the wrong mail with a virtual mailbox service like Stable

Getting someone else’s mail is a hassle, and if you don’t handle the situation properly, you could end up in legal trouble. Thankfully, it’s also a problem that a virtual mailbox service like Stable can completely prevent.

With Stable, all of your mail goes to a secure processing center, where experienced mail-handling professionals sort, scan, and upload it for online viewing. From there, you can choose to store it for up to 30 days, forward it to any location, or securely discard it. Best of all, you never have to worry about getting the wrong mail again!

Start enjoying the convenience of a virtual mailbox service — sign up for Stable today!

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