Is this illegal:

Let's say someone wants to send a letter to a recipient.

But if the sender were to put the correct return address and name on the letter that it likely will be thrown away by the recipient unopened.

So they put the name of a fictitious or incorrect name and return address on the letter, or they put the name and address of a legitimate business (but not theirs) on the letter in hopes that the recipient will open it and at least read the first page of the letter (which would then get them to read the rest of it).

What laws does this break? I'm thinking 18 U.S. Code § 1342 - Fictitious name or address, but not sure if it breaks this or others.

There is nothing in the letter except information. There is no attempt to obtain money, make any trade, nor anything else except the content of the letter, which is simply factual information only.

  • 1
    18 USC 1342 only applies if the purpose of using the false name is something covered in section 1341 (various kinds of fraud) or "any other unlawful business". Trying to get someone to read something isn't "unlawful business" as far as I know, so I don't think this is a violation of 1342. I can't think of any other law that would be violated, either. Sep 15, 2017 at 4:48

1 Answer 1


First, return addresses are intended simply to provide a mechanism by which an undeliverable or returned letter can be returned to the sender. If you have a practical concern then consider the following: I worked for the postal service and never experienced an instance where anyone cared whether there was an accurate return address except in the following cases:

  1. As mentioned above, a letter was refused or otherwise undeliverable, and an attempt will be made to return the letter to the return address. In cases of a false, unreadable, or non-existent return address, the letter will be marked undeliverable and likely destroyed or recycled.
  2. Someone is trying to scam the system by putting an identical address on each the delivery and return address of a mail piece, especially on mail pieces that have insufficient postage. If caught, this mail piece will go to the delivery address the same as any other case of insufficient postage, with a postage due requirement for the recipient. However, in this case this piece will be held and eventually destroyed rather than returning to sender, since it does not have a non-identical return address.
  3. The content of the mail piece is illegal (e.g. anthrax, drugs, etc. made apparent by forensic equipment or by a piece of mail being inadvertently opened/destroyed by a machine and discovered by a postal employee). In these cases the mail piece will be sent to the postal inspection service (most plants have one in-house). These postal inspectors might have use for a return address in the event that the sender was dumb enough to include an accurate return address on an illegal mail piece.

18 U.S. Code § 1342 penalizes those who commit crimes under false names, and uses broad language to include people who use pseudonyms to avoid detection, since these actions make the job of postal inspectors much more difficult. The final language also makes opening mail address to people other than one's self illegal, though this is likely described elsewhere, too. It does not pertain to false return addresses, unless someone were to open the letter upon return, despite that person not being the return addressee, or committing some other crime using the postal service.

The only situations where I can see your hypothetical situation becoming a concern for postal inspectors or postal regulators would be:

  1. The mail piece masquerades as a certified, registered, or other special class of mail. There are many junk mailings out there that look surprisingly similar to the protected classes of mail, but are distinct enough to not raise any serious concerns (e.g. "CONFIDENTIAL", "URGENT", or various green or red markings). The penalty would probably be a fine in the amount of each identified letter times the price for the corresponding postal product.

  2. The return address is for a governmental entity, or possibly an annoyed person or company, but not actually sent from these locations. I suspect this is the possibility most relevant to your question. However, this is unlikely to raise any concern, unless a recipient or other affected party raises a fraud concern (18 USC 1341, 1342 & 1345; 39 USC 3005 & 3007) with the postal service. This would be taken on by the postal inspection service, which would investigate the content of the mailings for any signs of the actual sender, and they may attempt a variety of other methods (e.g. tracing letter meters, surveillance) to locate the source of the mail. However, the legal penalties would probably be fraud-related and might fall outside postal regulations per se, but could include federal laws about committing crimes that leverage the mail service, and various other laws if this is done across state lines (also this might invite FBI attention).

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