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Did You Accidentally Commit a Felony? What to Do With Mail That Isn’t Yours

Close-up Of Person Hands Taking Letters View From Inside The Silver Mailbox
AndreyPapov / Getty Images

We’ve all gotten mail intended for someone else, whether it’s a neighbor, someone who no longer lives there, or simply the wrong address. If you rent your home, you may be frustrated by the number of past tenants whose mail you receive on a daily basis. It’s hard to figure out what to do with mail that isn’t yours if you can’t get a hold of the recipient. What you probably don’t know is that chucking those letters into the trash isn’t just a bad idea – it’s a felony.

There’s a reason that the federal government makes tampering with mail illegal. Most people receive a number of personal and confidential documents through the mail that can be used to steal their identity. In fact, seven people were arrested in Georgia for stealing mail and cashing the checks they found. In 2018, a postal worker received felony and misdemeanor charges for failing to deliver thousands of pieces of mail that he later dumped in a ravine. But for every person who intentionally mishandles mail and makes headlines, there are many more who accidentally break the law just by failing to properly forward the wrong address mail they receive.

55% to 59% of movers regularly receive mail addressed to the previous residents of their move.

A main cause of mail being delivered to the wrong address is former owners or tenants who haven’t properly updated their information. According to a recent survey that we conducted,* 55-59% of movers regularly receive mail addressed to previous residents of their home. Despite efforts by the USPS® to reduce undeliverable mail, it still costs the postal service $1.5 billion every year.

Did you know that tossing out someone else’s mail is a felony?

In United States law, the handling of mail is addressed in U.S. Code § 1708. The law enables a fine and up to five years in jail for anyone who “buys, receives, or conceals, or unlawfully has in his possession” any piece of mail that isn’t theirs. However, since this is a federal law, some individual states outline their own specific penalties. For example, Texas specifies that mishandling mail from fewer than ten locations is simply a misdemeanor, while tampering with mail from 50 or more locations is a first-degree felony punishable by five years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

It’s important to note that the law requires intent; you have to know the mail doesn’t belong to you in order to be charged with a crime. If you’re opening your mail and accidentally open one that wasn’t addressed to you without realizing it, you’re probably fine. However, destroying or disposing of mail because it was addressed to someone else is proof in itself that you were aware the mail wasn’t yours. This is more than enough grounds to show intent.

What to do with mail that isn’t yours

If you’re not sure what to do with mail that isn’t yours, it’s probably easier than you think to get rid of it legally. All you need to do is write “RETURN TO SENDER” on the front of the envelope and put it back in your mailbox. Your postal worker will take care of it for you from there. In many cases, the post office will recognize large volumes of mail being sent back and automatically stop mail for that person from being delivered at your address.

If you’ve returned several pieces of mail for the same person and are still getting them, you may need to be more direct. Try writing a friendly note to your postal worker informing that the person no longer lives there and asking them to stop delivering the mail.

mail infographic

For renters who are getting excessive amounts of mail from past tenants, you may have luck letting the landlord know. Many landlords keep updated contact information on hand for past tenants to facilitate the return of their security deposit. If the landlord is still in touch, they can let the tenant know their mail is going to the wrong place and ask them to update their address.

However, what you should not do is fill out a change-of-address on behalf of the prior resident. The USPS prevents this by verifying the identity of the person filing the request. For security reasons, the only person who can ask for a change-of-address is the recipient themselves.

Don’t be part of the problem — change your address with the USPS before you move

Of course, it’s possible that your mail could be causing a headache for someone else, too. If you’re planning to move, make sure you notify USPS that you’re relocating. Use this change-of-address form to file an official request as early as 3 months before you move and up to 30 days after you move. The recommended time to submit a change-of-address is at least two weeks prior to the move date. This service costs just $1.05.

If you file a change-of-address form in advance and your plans change, there’s nothing to worry about. You can always modify your request as needed. Check out our guide on how to change or cancel your change-of-address for more information.

The bottom line

Getting someone else’s mail is annoying, but the potential repercussions of tossing it in the trash aren’t worth breaking the law. Returning wrong address mail legally is as simple as writing “RETURN TO SENDER” on the envelope and sticking it back in your mailbox. Just make sure to pay it forward by filing a change-of-address form when you move so that your mail doesn’t become someone else’s problem.

Frequently asked questions

Why am I getting someone else’s mail?

Most of the time, wrong address mail is intended for prior residents of your address. According to our Movers survey,* between 55-59% of people report receiving mail for past tenants or owners.

Can I open someone else’s mail?

No, it is illegal to intentionally open someone else’s mail. However, if you accidentally open a stray piece of mail that ended up in your mailbox, it’s not technically a crime. 

Can I keep mail delivered to me by mistake?

If you receive mail addressed to someone else and keep it, you’re still committing a crime. U.S. Code § 1708 calls this concealing mail and specifically prohibits it.

How long does forwarding last after filing a Change-of-Address?

Mail forwarding with USPS lasts for 12 months from the date of your move, although newspapers and magazines are only forwarded for 60 days. 

How do I stop receiving mail for someone else at my address?

If you’re continuing to receive mail for someone else at your home, try leaving a quick note in your mailbox letting the Post Office know that the intended recipient doesn’t live there.

Where do I find my USPS mail forwarding status?

You can check your USPS mail forwarding status on the official change-of-address website.

Is there a way to extend mail forwarding?

Unfortunately, mail forwarding cannot be extended past the 12-month period following your move.

*HDCI .89, 1,425 respondents

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