Open someone else's mail

Is It Legal to Open Someone Else’s Mail? (Australia)

Jul 21, 2022
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Written by Angela Omari

It happens to us all. You open up all your mail only to realise that a letter or package has someone else’s name on it.

Maybe you’ve moved houses, or maybe it was erroneously redirected to your address, but can this harmless act land you in hot water? 

The answer is yes. Opening someone else’s mail can actually be considered illegal in Australia.

Read along as we explain what the legalities are when it comes to opening mail that wasn’t intended for you.

Exceptions to opening someone else’s mail in Australia 

In Australia, under the Telecommunications and Postal Services Act 1989, it is an offense to open mail that you are not authorised to open – that is if it is not addressed to you.

Moreover, anything that is covered under Federal postal offenses is deemed to be a felony. However, it’s important to know that this rule has some exceptions. 

Accidents can happen, and you may not intend to open people’s mail. For example:

  • You may have ripped open the envelope before checking the address
  • The addressee’s name wasn’t on the envelope
  • The mail was sent to the wrong address or a different address
  • The postman added the mail to the wrong letterbox
  • The mail was sent to a previous tenant of the hous

If you’re caught up with any of the accidents above, you won’t get into trouble unless you tamper with the mail.

When is it mail theft?

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 where you will find the law on postal offences. Under section 471.7, it is a federal crime if you open a ‘mail-receptacle’ that is not yours.

What is a mail-receptacle?

A mail-receptacle is basically any package, mail-bag, parcel, container etc, that arrives in the post. In order for it to be an offence, you must be seen to have dishonestly opened it or intentionally done so, knowing that you are not authorised to. 

This can draw penalties of 2 or 5 years imprisonment. Therefore 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. 

It’s safe to say that next time you receive a parcel from the Iconic that doesn’t have your name on it – it’s best to return it to the sender.

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Keeping Mail

Despite the fact that accidentally opening someone else’s mail won’t be illegal, 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. 

Engaging in this activity can result in a penalty of 5 years imprisonment. Similarly, 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.

Other postal offences

The Criminal Code Act, along with the Telecommunication and Postal Services Act (Cth), cover a variety of other postal offences that can result in criminal penalties. The following activities would be considered offences:

  • Stealing mail from the postal service
  • Tampering with a post box
  • Throwing out mail
  • Dishonestly receiving stolen mail
  • Harassing others via post
  • Stealing someones mail containing a credit card, and undergoing identity theft is a criminal activity

What to do with mail that isn’t yours

DO NOT throw the mail away. 

As previously mentioned, it is illegal to dispose of mail that isn’t yours. The best course of action is to write “RETURN TO SENDER” on the envelope and place it into your local post box.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Who enforces the postal laws?

The Australian Federal Police handles federal crimes. Most email tampering cases get settled in the local courts first.

How to report someone opening your mail Australia?

You can report mail tampering to your local police, and they will give you the resources you need to pursue your case.

What are the consequences of reading someone else’s email?

If you open the mail that has been wrongly delivered and also hold onto it dishonestly, you can be charged with concealment.

Key takeaways

Having gone through the postal offences legislation, it is clear that the key focus of the laws is on intent. 

In the majority of the provisions, the law will require prior knowledge or dishonesty as elements to prove an offence. However, there is an acknowledgement that opening mail not addressed to you can happen accidentally. 

Provided you don’t use the mail dishonestly or deceitfully, you will not face any criminal charges. However, if your actions align with any of the postal offences above, you should hire a lawyer

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