What you need to know about federal laws on mail delivery

May 23, 2023
Minh Mai

Did you know it’s a crime to withhold mail?

Or that the postal service can refuse to deliver the mail if there’s a dog on the premises?

These are just two examples of the many federal laws governing mail delivery in the United States. If you run a business, some of these laws may be more relevant to your operations than others. Following them will ensure legal compliance and help you optimize your mail management processes while protecting yourself, your customers, and your business.

Read on to learn more about federal laws on mail delivery, including five important federal laws to be aware of, why they matter, and the consequences of breaking them.

Important federal laws on mail delivery you should be aware of

You may only give your mail matters much thought when something goes wrong: Were you expecting time-sensitive correspondence from the IRS that never came? Or perhaps you've sent out a contract for a new client to sign, only for them to tell you they still haven't gotten it?

The reality is that a lot goes on behind the scenes with mail carriage — and many rules and regulations exist to keep things running safely and smoothly.

While these laws run the gamut of topics ranging from injury to mail bags to vehicles falsely labeled as mail carriers, some are universally relevant to all organizations that send and receive mail.

Let's look at five of the most important federal mail laws for businesses to be aware of.

1) The Postal Service Reorganization Act of 1970

When Congress signed the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, it transformed the existing department from its positioning as part of the cabinet into its own government-owned independent corporation with a monopoly on mail delivery within the country.

And so, the United States Postal Service was born.

With this reorganization, authority for postal governance shifts from the USPS to Congress. Its purpose was to allow the newly formed postal network to function more like a business enterprise, including investing in new technologies, setting its own rates, and defining its own services.

The ultimate outcome was a unique mail delivery service that continues to function today as both a public service and a business under the helm of its executive head, the Postmaster General.

2) The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006

Enacted in 2006, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) was the first significant post office overhaul since the Postal Service Reorganization Act of 1970. Two of its noteworthy stipulations included that:

  • Postage prices couldn’t rise faster than the inflation rate.
  • Mail delivery would be six days a week.

3) The Private Express Statutes

Enacted in 1934, this group of federal civil and criminal laws granted exclusive letter mail carriage and delivery to the federal government. Its goal was to protect the USPS in its mission while sparing it from competition from private courier services.

In addition to applying only to letters, the Private Express Statutes (PES) does specify certain exceptions, such as for “extremely urgent” letters, special messenger services, free delivery, and several others.

4) The Mail Fraud Statute

Closely related to the wire fraud statute, the Mail Fraud Statute criminalizes using mail as part of any scheme to defraud someone.

Pyramid schemes, fake credit card applications, fake invoices, welfare and insurance frauds, synthetic identity theft, and check kiting all fall under the umbrella of mail fraud.

5) The Obstruction of Mail Statute

If you’ve ever waited on an important letter, you know how painstaking the process can be. But what you might not know is that it’s actually illegal to hold up mail delivery. The Obstruction of Mail Statute forbids the knowing and willful obstruction (or slowing) of mail, mail carriers, or mail-carrying conveyances.

The importance of federal laws on mail delivery

Many mail laws may seem like common sense, while others may seem nit-picky or unnecessary. While it may not be obvious, every federal law surrounding mail aims to protect the USPS, its customers, and the mail delivery process.

Protects the integrity of the mail system

The U.S. Postal Service processes a staggering 292,628 pieces of mail every minute for a total of 421.4 million mail pieces daily. As a business with a bottom line, the USPS must make good on its mission of "provid[ing] the nation with reliable, affordable, universal mail service."

Not only does the USPS maintain responsibility for protecting the sanctity of mail, but so does every letter carrier, along with all postal employees. Whenever you put a piece of mail in the outgoing pile, you trust the Post Office to make good on this duty.

Protects the privacy of mail users

While junk mail makes up a good bit of U.S. mail (and managing it can be a major drain on your resources), other mail pieces are very important because they contain sensitive data or convey important information.

From checks to utility bill payments to communications with the State or IRS, the post office and its employees must treat your business's mail with proper care and attention. 

Ensures that the mail is delivered in a timely and efficient manner

In a world where many forms of communication are instant, physical mail can seem alarmingly slow by comparison. To keep pace, the USPS is committed to fast and dependable delivery times and accelerated delivery options, such as First-Class Mail, Priority Mail, Priority Mail Express, and Next Day delivery.

Additionally, federal laws (such as the Obstruction of Mail Statute) add another layer of protection and accountability.

Consequences for breaking federal laws on mail delivery

Think opening someone else's mail is no big deal? Think again. Federal laws are serious business with serious consequences; violators may also be charged under state laws, too.

Here’s a closer look at some of the repercussions of violating federal mail delivery laws.

Obstruction of mails

Obstructing, delaying, or otherwise unlawfully interfering with the delivery of mail is a federal offense with consequences of fines and up to six months of jail time.

You may not think anything of throwing out mail that isn’t addressed to you or your business if you receive it by mistake. However, taking this route (rather than having the mail rerouted to the correct recipient) results in an intentional delay of mail delivery. 

Mail tampering

In the United States, mail is considered by law to be private property. Just like you can’t steal, damage, destroy, or interfere with someone else’s property, you can’t open, steal, damage, destroy, hide, or withhold someone else’s mail. The consequences for mail tampering include severe fines of up to $250,000 and up to five years in jail.

Mail theft

The U.S. Postal Service is plagued by mail theft, and incidents continue to rise. (In particular, mail theft of checks is surging, which is one of several reasons why digital check depositing services are beneficial.) But the takeaway is clear: All mail left sitting in letter boxes or another unattended mail receptacle awaiting a pick up is potentially at risk.

While considered a lesser offense than mail fraud, the punishment for theft of mail is still steep with punishments of monetary fines and up to five years of jail time.

Mail Fraud

Mail theft and mail fraud often go hand in hand, with reports of check fraud filed by banks also skyrocketing. Federal punishments for regular mail fraud include a fine determined by the judge and up to 20 years in federal prison.

When such mail fraud involves federal disaster relief funds or financial institutions, the penalties increase: up to 30 years in prison and fines of up to $1 million.

In both scenarios, defendants may also be required to pay restitution to their victims.

Federal laws on mail delivery protect you and your mail

Ultimately, federal laws on mail delivery were put into place to protect people and their mail. If you’re running a business, knowing these laws can help you and your employees stay on the right side of them.

However, these laws can only go so far on their own. In order to optimize mail management within your business, you need your own systems in place.

This brings us to another way to protect your mail and the potentially sensitive information it contains: Use a virtual address and virtual mailbox service like Stable.

A practical alternative to a P.O. Box and USPS mail forwarding, Stable mitigates many of the vulnerabilities associated with physical mail while conferring many additional benefits associated with digitizing your mail. Stable even handles electronic check deposits and offers document shredding, which can help reduce the risks associated with checks, mail theft, and fraud.

Stable’s mail management partnership is ideal for today’s future-facing organizations, including remote and distributed businesses, and those incorporating in new or multiple states.

Create your Stable address today to start improving your mail operation efficiency, security, and sustainability.

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