Withholding Mail From Someone: Is It Illegal?

Changing addresses can be very stressful, even without having to worry about all your mail finding its way to your new place. The whole situation becomes even more complicated if the person living at your old address is trying to withhold your mail from you for some reason.

Or perhaps you’ve just moved to someplace new, and you’re getting tons of mail addressed to the previous tenant. As luck would have it, you don’t know the person and don’t have their contact, so you have no idea what to do with all that mail.

What should you do in such circumstances? Can someone legally hold your mail? What happens if you keep someone’s mail from them? Can you throw away mail not addressed to you? Read on to find out!

Can Someone Legally Hold Your Mail?

In short, no. It is illegal for someone to keep your mail from you. According to U.S. law (link), it is highly illegal to tamper with the mail stream. That includes mail intercepting, mail theft, and withholding someone’s mail from them. So, if anyone has your mail and refuses to hand it over or disposes of it without your permission, they’re committing a crime.

Still, it’s not uncommon for people who move out to have such an issue with their ex-partner, ex-roommate, or an angry landlord. That’s why you should know the laws and your rights. And in this case, the law clearly states that no one can legally take your mail.

What Can You Do

But what can you do to help resolve the situation? If you suspect someone has taken your mail, try talking to them about it first. Make sure they know what they are doing is illegal during the conversation. That will be enough to make them give it back to you in most cases.

File a Police Report

However, if the person continues to hold on to your mail or falsely denies taking it, you should then file a police report on stolen mail. While you’re at it, be open about your situation, no matter how unpleasant your relationship with the said person is. Also, try offering some proof if you have it.

Report to the U.S. Postal Service

Furthermore, you have the right to file a complaint with the U.S. Postal Service. U.S. Postal Inspectors are the ones who make sure the mail reaches its rightful recipient and that it stays intact. So, they should be your next stop.

Postal inspectors will require you to file a form called PS Form 2016. Next, they will review your formal complaint and investigate the problem. In any case, the right way to go about it is to report to the police first and then to the Postal Service.

Note: to avoid such problems in the future, it would be best to get a post office box for all your mail and deliveries.

What Happens if You Keep Someone’s Mail From Them?

As discussed above, 18 U.S.C. 1702 states that it is punishable by law to keep someone else’s mail without their permission intentionally. In fact, regardless of the monetary worth, stealing mail is a third-degree felony that can earn you five years in jail and a fine. Likewise, there are individual state-level laws regarding mail theft. Hence, in some states, the person holding your mail can be guilty of a public offense as well.

The reason behind such a law is that many people receive confidential and personal documents via mail that can be used to steal their identity. For instance, several people in Georgia got arrested in 2020 for stealing other people’s mail and cashing in the checks they found in it.

So, no matter what kind of dispute you have with someone, taking their mail is not the greatest idea. In the best-case scenario, you will end up with a fine, and in the worst, both jail and fine will wait for you at the end of that line.

Can You Throw Away Mail Not Addressed to You?

Throwing away or destroying mail that is not intended for you is a federal crime. It’s important to highlight here that this law requires intent. So, if you saw that the name on a box or an envelope was not yours and you decided to dispose of it, it shows that you were aware that it belonged to someone else. That shows intent and is more than enough grounds to make you guilty of tampering with mail.

The Right Way to Deal With Other People’s Mail

However, what should you do if you accidentally get mail intended for someone else or you keep getting mail addressed to someone who no longer lives there? Well, by now, you’ve probably figured out that keeping it, opening it, or chucking it into the trash is a felony. But the proper way to pass it forward is actually easier than you might have assumed.

Let the Mailman Know

Simply write “RETURN TO SENDER” on the front of the envelope and put it back into your mailbox.Your mailman should take care of it from there. If you repeat this process several times, the post office will notice that the mail is being sent back and stop delivering it to your address.

Nevertheless, if you notice that you are still getting mail for the same person, write a note to your mailman. Kindly inform them that the person no longer lives at the address and ask them to stop delivering such mail. However, never cross out the recipient’s name on the envelope.

Let the Landlord Know

Another thing you can try is letting the landlord know. Landlords usually keep the updated contact information on their previous tenantsin order to speed up the return of their security deposit. So, if the landlord is still in touch with the person, they can help you resolve the issue.

Don’t Try Changing the Address

Even if you know the new address of the person whose mail you keep receiving, you should never fill out a change of address on their behalf. That is because the USPS will verify the identity of a person that filed the request for security reasons. The recipient themself is the only one who has the right to do that.

On the other hand, you can deliver the mail yourself if you know where the recipient lives now. That way, you can ask them directly to file a change-of-the-address form.

What if You Accidentally Opened Someone’s Mail?

As previously discussed, the law regarding handling mail implies intent. So, if you opened an envelope before realizing it wasn’t intended for you, you will be fine. All you need to do is go to the post office, explain the situation, and return the mail. You can also use the opportunity to ask the postal workers to stop sending such mail to your address.

Let’s Recap

Getting mail addressed to the last tenant (or several) can be annoying. However, there’s a law in the U.S. that prohibits you from taking, opening, or throwing it away. So, to avoid being charged for a crime, it would be best to write “RETURN TO SENDER” and a note to your mailman explaining that the person no longer lives there.

On the other hand, you can use this law to retrieve your mail someone else took and refused to give back. The first thing you should do is report the stolen mail to the police.

Next, you should go to the nearest post office and file a complaint. Postal Inspectors will review the situation and check if you are the only one with such an issue or there are others dealing with the same problem. They will then proceed to resolve the mail theft on your behalf.