Is It Illegal to Shred Previous Tenants' Mail?

Have you been receiving mail from a previous tenant and don't know what to do with it? This article addresses what your obligations are in such situations.

Receiving mail from a previous tenant is annoying, especially if you don't know the former tenant. If you know who the person is, you can write a forwarding address on the envelope and send it on.

What should you do if you don't know who the person is? Can you open another person's mail? Can you throw it away? Read on to learn what you can and cannot do with other people's mail.

Can You Open or Shred a Previous Tenant's Mail?

In a word, no. It is a federal crime to destroy, hide, open, or embezzle mail that is not intended for you. The official crime is obstruction of correspondence, which is a felony. If you're found guilty of this crime, you could face up to five years in prison and some hefty fines.

But, not all mail is equal. The important part of the code section reads "not directed to [them]." You are probably not required to retain or forward all a previous resident's junk mail.

If you look at the address on most bulk mail, it often says "To Former Addressee or current resident." Most bulk advertisers target their mail at residents, even ads dressed up in formal envelopes. Junk mail addressed to the current resident is yours, and you can get rid of it.

What Should I Do If I Receive Someone Else's Mail?

If you're receiving the previous tenants' mail, it usually means the previous tenants did not send a change of address form to the U.S. Postal Service. You should write something like "return to sender," "wrong address," or "NSP" (no such person) and put it back in the mailbox. The mail carrier will take care of it from there.

The USPS uses barcode readers to route mail, so if the letter has a barcode across the bottom, you should cross it out. A live person must handle the letter and enter the correction into the post office's computers. It may take three to four months to correct.

What If I Accidentally Opened the Mail?

Since intent is required to establish mail theft, just opening a piece of mail is not illegal. It is reasonable for you to assume the mail in your mailbox belongs to you. What is illegal is preventing the letter from reaching the intended recipient.

If you accidentally open mail in another tenant's name, reseal it and return it as discussed above. This is not considered tampering with the mail. Make sure you put everything back in the envelope before you seal it.

If you damaged the envelope and cannot safely reseal it, take it to the post office. Explain the situation. You're not the first person to accidentally open a former tenant's mail.

What If I Have Permission To Open the Mail?

If you have permission from the previous tenant, such as a roommate who moved out and didn't give you their new address right away, you may open the letter. Under federal law, an authorized agent may handle mail addressed to another person.

To avoid legal issues, you should have this permission in writing. This type of permission usually applies to secretaries opening their employer's mail and similar situations.

What If I'm the Property Manager? Can I Open the Mail of a Former Renter?

No. Property managers and landlords of rental properties may not:

  • Throw away mail from former tenants or deceased tenants

  • Throw away or destroy undeliverable mail

  • Open mail looking for new addresses

  • Fill out a change of address form for former tenants

Managers and landlords can only do the same things current tenants may do.

Talk to an Attorney if You Face Charges of Obstruction of Correspondence

Opening and destroying mail intended for someone else is a felony crime. If you face criminal charges of mail tampering, you should speak to a criminal defense attorney at once to discuss your options.

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