History of the Mail Fraud Statute

Fraudsters long ago discovered how to use the postal system for conducting schemes. It wasn’t until 1872 that Congress enacted the first regulatory laws against mail fraud, the Mail Fraud Statue.

Not Until 1872...

By 1865 the public was heavily impacted by mail fraud. These schemes often included promises of land, lotteries, and gifts. Rarely, however, were they fulfilled. In 1866 Senator James Dixon from Connecticut introduced a bill to protect the public and postal system from mail fraud.

By 1868, Congress enacted this legislation, making it illegal "to deposit in a post office to be sent by mail, any letters or circulars concerning lotteries, so-called gift concerts, or similar enterprises offering prizes of any pretext whatsoever."

Unfortunately, this bill had little effect. The contents were vague, and postal employees were reluctant to enforce, due to an 1836 law that enacted harsh penalties on postal employees for unlawfully detaining letters.

"Penalty for Misusing the Post Office establishment."

Farnsworth was the representative from Illinois and a 14-year veteran of Congress. After the success of his bill, he quickly rose to the position of Chairman of the Post Office and Post Roads Committee in 1873. On June 8, 1872, the 42nd Congress revised Farnsworth's bill and enacted the first statutes against mail fraud for the Post Office Department.

The new Mail Fraud Statute stated that any person within or outside the United States who had intentions to use the mails to defraud another, shall be charged with a misdemeanor and fined or imprisoned. Now for the first time, Special Agents (now Postal Inspectors) of the Post Office had the ability to federally prosecute fraudsters.

Ages of Fraud

Green Goods 1872-1900
The Sting Era 1900-1920
The Golden Era of Fraud 1920-1940
Codification of the Mail Fraud Statute 1940-1960
Expansion of Postal Inspectors' Roles 1960-1980
Modern Mail Fraud 1980-Present


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