In order to better understand the crime of false pretenses you must first understand the crimes of fraud, larceny, and embezzlement. Both larceny and embezzlement are theft crimes that deal with the taking of another’s property without consideration or permission from the owner of the property.
Criminal fraud occurs when an individual misrepresents a material fact that they know to be false, with an intent to deceive another, which results in an actual injury or damages to the individual that relies on the misrepresentation.
Specifically, larceny is the unlawful taking of the property of another without the permission of the owner coupled with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of that property. Embezzlement is similar to larceny in that it involves a taking of the property of another person or business, however the person who performs the taking has permission to access and handle the funds. The act of embezzlement occurs when the person entrusted to handle funds takes funds for their own personal use, and is generally classified as a white collar crime.
False pretenses, also known as “obtaining property by false pretenses,” is a crime that is a combination of fraud and larceny where an individual lies or makes misrepresentations in order to obtain the property of another. False pretenses is very similar to the theft crime of “larceny by trick,” which involves convincing someone to transfer you possession of their property through deception.
However, false pretenses differs from the crime of larceny by trick, because false pretenses involves obtaining not only possession of another’s property through deception, but proper title to the property as well. For example, if you convince another person to let you borrow their car, but have no intention of returning the vehicle, you may be convicted of the crime of larceny by trick. However, in the same example, if you convince that same person to instead sell you their vehicle for $10,000 and transfer you title, but you do not have the intention to ever pay them, you will likely be convicted of the crime of false pretenses.
Although the exact definition and legal elements of the crime of false pretenses vary by state, generally the elements of the crime of false pretenses are:
- An individual makes a false representation of a past or existing material fact;
- The person making the representation knew the representation was false;
- The representation was made with the intent to defraud the other person;
- The victim relied on the false representation; and
- Due to the false representation the victim passes title to their property.
As can be seen, false pretenses involves fraudulently representing a fact in order to deceive another individual into transferring title to their property. Under common law, which is the body of law derived from precedent and judicial decisions, false pretenses is defined as:
- A representation of a present or past fact;
- That the thief knows to be false;
- With the intention of causing the victim to pass title of their property; and
- The victim passes title of their property.
Importantly, no matter which definition your state follows, false pretenses involves a fraudulent statement made with the intention of deceiving an individual to pass title of their property to the thief.
As noted above, one common example of the crime of false pretenses is when a thief convinces someone to sell and transfer title to their vehicle for $10,000, but the thief has no intention of paying the $10,000. However, the most common example of the crime of false pretenses involves someone with superior knowledge of a fact taking advantage of someone who has less or no knowledge of a fact.
For example, one scenario involving the crime of false pretenses might involve a situation where a buyer makes a false representation that a vintage Tiffany lamp that someone is selling is actually instead a cheap imitation, and then offers to pay $5 for the lamp. If the seller then relies on the representation that the lamp is in fact a knock off and accepts the offer, when the buyer has knowledge that the tiffany lamp is in fact genuine and worth thousands more, the buyer is guilty of obtaining that property by false pretenses. It is important to note that if the seller of the property is unaware that they have a genuine Tiffany lamp, the buyer would not likely be guilty of obtaining property by false pretenses if they knew but did not inform the seller of the actual value of what they were selling.
Thus, the essential element of false pretense is that the victim must actually be deceived by the misrepresentation, and the misrepresentation must be a major factor of the victim transferring title to the deceiving party. Typically, the material misrepresentation must be affirmative as well, meaning the representation cannot be a simple omission of facts. Thus, in the above example the buying party who sees a genuine Tiffany lamp marked at a garage sale for $10 is generally under no obligation of informing the selling party that actual value of the lamp.
As mentioned above, the crime of false pretenses is very similar to many theft crimes. However, the legal elements of fraudulent misrepresentation are almost completely identical to the elements of false pretenses. The major difference between the two is that false pretenses is a criminal offense, whereas fraudulent misrepresentation is a civil offense.
Therefore, if you are charged with the crime of obtaining property by false pretenses, you may face imprisonment, criminal fines, or a combination of both. However, you may also be sued in civil court for fraudulent misrepresentation and ordered to pay the plaintiff civil damages. Generally, when you commit the crime of obtaining property by false pretenses, you are also committing the civil offense of fraudulent misrepresentation.
As can be seen, the crime of obtaining property by false pretenses involves a combination of both contract and criminal law. Additionally, because every state has different laws regarding what constitutes the crime of false pretenses, as well as the range of criminal punishments, it is important to consult with a well qualified and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney if you have been accused of defrauding someone by false pretenses.
An experienced criminal defense attorney in your area can help explain the laws of your state regarding false pretenses, as well as advise you of your best course of legal action in facing criminal charges. Additionally, they can help you assert your best legal defenses, and represent you in any necessary court hearings.