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 What Is the Crime of False Pretenses?

To better understand the crime of pretenses, you must first understand the crimes of larceny, embezzlement, and fraud. All three are theft crimes that involve taking another’s property without permission:

  • Larceny is the most common type of what people think of as theft. Specifically, it is the unlawful taking of the property of another without the permission of the owner, coupled with the intent to deprive the owner of that property permanently. It’s stealing, in other words.
  • Embezzlement occurs when a person entrusted to handle funds takes some funds for their own personal use. An embezzlement is a white-collar form of theft. It is similar to larceny in that it involves taking the property of another person or business; however, in embezzlement, the person has permission to access and handle the funds as part of their job or other connection.
  • Fraud involves developing a scheme to cheat or deceive another individual or entity for financial gain. The person committing fraud uses false statements, lies, or misrepresentation; hides or conceals important information; and uses deceptive conduct. Fraud involves getting property to which the criminal is not entitled, which sounds like larceny.
    • However, fraud is different from larceny. Larceny means obtaining property or money by stealing it, often with the use or threat of force. By contrast, fraud involves a “scheme or artifice” to convince someone to give up property or cash based on false statements. Fraud does not occur when an individual provides the plaintiff with a fact they believed to be true, even if mistaken.

False pretenses, also known as “obtaining property by false pretenses,” is a crime that is a combination of fraud and larceny.

In false pretenses, the defendant lies or makes misrepresentations in order to obtain someone else’s property. False pretenses are very similar to the theft crime of “larceny by trick,” which involves convincing someone to transfer possession of their property by deceiving them. However, false pretenses differ from the crime of larceny by trick because false pretenses involve obtaining possession of another’s property through deception and the title to the property.

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 larceny by trick. However, in the same example, if you convince someone to sell you instead of their vehicle and transfer the title to you, and you get the title, but you never pay for the car, you will likely be convicted of false pretenses.

What Are the Legal Elements 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:

  1. There is a false representation of a material past or present fact
  2. The person who made the representation knew it was false
  3. The representation was made with the intent to defraud the other person
  4. The victim actually relied on the false representation
  5. Due to the false representation, the victim passed ownership (title) of their property to the statement maker

As can be seen, false pretenses involves fraudulently representing a fact 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:

  1. A representation of a present or past fact
  2. That the thief knows to be false
  3. With the intention of causing the victim to pass the title of their property, and
  4. The victim passes the title of their property.

Importantly, no matter which definition your state follows, false pretenses involve a fraudulent statement to deceive an individual into passing the title of their property to the thief.

What Are Some Examples of the Crime of False Pretenses?

As noted above, one common example of false pretenses is when a thief convinces someone to sell and transfer the title to their vehicle to the thief for $10,000, but the thief has no intention of paying the $10,000.

The most common example of the crime of false pretenses involves someone with superior knowledge of the truth taking advantage of someone unaware. For example, an antique dealer tries to sell a purportedly vintage Tiffany lamp, but it is an imitation, and the dealer knows it. If the buyer relies on the seller’s claim that the lamp is a valuable and rare antique, the seller is guilty of false pretenses.

It is important to note that if the seller of the property is unaware that the lamp is a fake, they would not likely be guilty of obtaining property by false pretenses. This is the most common defense offered by plaintiffs: they were unaware that the information they gave wasn’t true.

Typically, the material misrepresentation must be affirmative, meaning that pretenses do not occur if it is an omission of facts rather than a statement. In the example above, if the buyer thought it was a Tiffany lamp, never asking the seller whether it was, and the seller did not independently claim that it was a real Tiffany, there is no act of false pretenses.

That is because sellers are under no obligation to tell buyers about the product’s actual value. The buyer who does not want to pay more for the product than it’s worth must ask questions themself.

What Is the Difference Between False Pretenses and Fraudulent Misrepresentation?

The legal elements of fraudulent misrepresentation are almost completely identical to those of a false pretenses case. The major difference between the two is that false pretenses are a criminal offense, whereas fraudulent misrepresentation is a civil offense.

Therefore, if you are charged with obtaining property by false pretenses, you will face possible imprisonment, criminal fines, or a combination of both. In addition, you may also be sued in civil court for fraudulent misrepresentation and be ordered to pay the plaintiff civil damages.

Should I Hire an Attorney for Help with False Pretenses Issues?

As can be seen, forming a defense against an accusation of false pretenses is complex because it involves a combination of both contract and criminal law. Additionally complicating things, every state has different laws regarding the definition of a crime of false pretenses and 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 and 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.


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