What to do if you receive someone else’s mail

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It's happened to most of us – we open the letterbox and find mail with our address on it but the wrong name. Or, alternatively, the mail is addressed to us but has been wrongly delivered to a neighbour. It’s an easy fix if it should have been delivered next door, but what if it's in another suburb?

When the mail has your address written on it, but not your name, the first instinct may be to throw it away or open it. But is this legal? And what should you do if this keeps happening? How can you stop receiving the previous tenant or owner’s mail? Let’s discuss what to do if you find yourself in this situation.

Don’t intentionally open someone else’s mail

Opening someone else’s mail can actually be considered illegal in Australia. In Australia, under the Telecommunications and Postal Services Act 1989, it is an offence to open mail that you are not authorised to open, if it is not addressed to you.

Lawpath explains there are some exceptions to this due to unintentional accidents. These include:

  • Ripping open the envelope before checking the address
  • The addressee’s name not being present on the envelope
  • The mail being sent to the wrong address or a different address
  • The postman putting the mail in the wrong letterbox
  • The mail was being sent to a previous tenant of the house

It is possible you may accidentally open the mail for any of the reasons above. It is only when you tamper with the mail that you may land in some trouble.

What constitutes mail tampering?

As Lawpath shares, tampering with mail is a criminal offence in Australia. Opening mail you are not authorised to can be considered tampering.

Division 471 of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth) is the law on postal offences. Under section 471.7, it is a federal crime if you open a ‘mail-receptacle’ (essentially any package, mail-bag, parcel, container etc, that arrives in the post) that is not yours.

According to Lawpath, for it to be an offence, you must be seen to have dishonestly opened the mail or intentionally done so, knowing that you are not authorised to. This can draw penalties of two to five years imprisonment.

The intention is the key factor. An accidental opening without intention isn’t illegal. However, if you’re opening a person’s mail intentionally, then you can get into serious trouble. If you ever receive a parcel that doesn’t have your name on it, it’s best to return it to the sender.

What to do if you receive the wrong mail

If you open the mail by accident, do not hold on to it

Lawpath explains that, although it may not be considered illegal if you accidentally open mail that isn’t yours, what you do with it after can be incriminating.

If you open the mail that has been wrongly delivered and also hold onto it dishonestly, you can be charged with concealment, which can result in a penalty of 5 years imprisonment.

If you accidentally opened mail that isn’t addressed to you, place the contents of the mail back into the envelope, and write “RETURN TO SENDER.” Place it in the local post box or if you are unsure, take it to your local police station.

Do not throw the mail away

Lawpath explains that it’s illegal to throw out mail intended for someone else. The only authority in Australia which can throw out mail is the post office such as Australia Post.

If in doubt, write “RETURN TO SENDER” on the envelope and place it into your local post box.

If the address is correct but the name isn't

The current advice from Australia Post if you receive mail addressed to your address but it is not for you or anyone who currently uses the address is to:

  1. Mark it as 'return to sender - unknown at this address'
  2. Place the item in a red street posting box or hand it to staff at any Post Office for return.

Australia Post notes that if you are receiving mail from a previous tenant, they must continue to deliver that mail as addressed unless the previous tenant submits a mail redirection request or updates their address details directly with the sender/s.

Mail incorrectly delivered to your address

If the mail is addressed to a different address and has been delivered to you incorrectly, Australia Post instructs you to simply place the item in a red street posting box or hand it to staff at any Post Office. In this case, there is no need to write anything on the envelope.

Australia Post advises getting in touch with them if this (or any of the other above problems) is a regular or ongoing issue so they can investigate and help take steps to prevent it from happening again.

Other postal offences to be aware of

Lawpath have listed some other postal offences to know about that can relate to receiving someone else’s mail. These are covered by The Criminal Code Act, along with the Telecommunication and Postal Services Act (Cth). The following activities would be considered offences and can result in criminal charges:

  • Stealing mail from the postal service
  • Tampering with a post box
  • Throwing out mail
  • Dishonestly receiving stolen mail
  • Harassing others via post
  • Stealing someone’s mail containing a credit card, and undergoing identity theft
Tracey Cheung
Written by
Tracey Cheung

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