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Is It Illegal to Open Someone Else's Mail?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Is it illegal to open another person's mail, even if it's mistakenly delivered to your address or mailbox?

The answer is generally yes, if you recognize that the letter is not intended for you. If you're caught opening someone else's mail, the federal criminal consequences could be dire.

Here are a few common scenarios when you receive someone else's mail:

1. You Accidentally Open a Letter Addressed to Someone Else.

Since most of us grab our mail from our mailboxes and open letters without a second thought, it is entirely possible to open someone else's mail by mistake.

Mistakes like this are not illegal. But what you do after you realize your mistake is important.

Under federal law, it is illegal to intentionally stop a letter from being delivered to its intended recipient, and that may include not informing the U.S. Postal Service that you have another person's mail. While U.S. Postal Inspectors aren't likely to hunt you down for throwing away mail addressed to a previous tenant -- especially if it's spam -- you should keep in mind that it is a federal crime to intentionally destroy another person's mail.

Simply write "Return to Sender" or "Wrong Address" on the mail not addressed to you and put it in your nearest mailbox.

2. You Take Mail Not Addressed to You and Open It.

Maybe you live in an apartment complex and there is a communal mail area which often has a loose stack of letters for various tenants. If you snatch a letter that isn't addressed to you and open it, you are committing mail theft.

Intentionally yanking a letter that is addressed to someone else, from someplace other than your mailbox, is a federal crime that could potentially land you in prison for up to five years.

However, if a person has died and his or her mail is piling up, you may take it and manage it -- as long as you intend to forward it to a new address or relinquish it to the deceased person's estate.

3. You're House-sitting and Have the Owner's Permission.

If you're house-sitting for someone and the owners would prefer that you take in their mail and open anything that looks urgent, no need to worry.

The federal law surrounding mail theft and obstruction only applies to unlawful receipt and opening of mail. With the addressee's permission, you may absolutely receive, open, and manage another person's mail.

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