False pretenses, or more properly called "obtaining property by false pretenses," is a crime where someone lies or makes misrepresentations in order to obtain someone else's property. It is closely related to theft (larceny), specifically "larceny-by-trick," but has one important distinction (noted below).

The elements of the crime of false pretenses are:

  1. Obtaining title to the personal property of another
  2. By means of an intentionally false statement of past or existing fact
  3. With the intent to defraud the other person

What Does All That Mean?

Basically, if you lie to someone in order to convince them to sell/give you something, and you succeed, then you've committed the crime of false pretenses.  


A) You tell someone you will give them $30,000 for their car (a lie). They give you the car and transfer the title to your name, and you never pay. 
B) You tell someone that the vase they have is a cheap imitation, and offer to pay $10 for it. The seller believes you, and accepts. You know, however, that it is a Ming vase worth millions.  

Note that it is essential that the victim of the false pretense must actually be deceived by the misrepresentation, and the deception must be a major (if not the only) factor of the victim granting title to the lying party. In example B above, for instance, if the seller did not believe you and knew the vase was worth millions, but for some reason really needed that $10 and took your offer anyway, that would not count as false pretenses.

Also, the misrepresentation generally has to be affirmative, unlike in fraudulent misrepresentation (courts differ on this). That is to say, it can't be an omission or a innuendo, it must be a direct declaration. It also cannot be an opinion (i.e. "that vase is probably a fake" would not be sufficient), nor can it be a statement about the future ("this car will run great in 15 years!"). The lie must be about a present or past fact.

How Is This Different From Simple Theft or Fraudulent Misrepresentation?

Good question.  The crime of false pretenses is in fact very similar to both.  

  • Theft: Lying to someone in order to simply steal something is called larceny-by-trick. This crime is identical to the crime of false pretenses except that the actual title of the property is never transfered; the perpetrator is simply stealing it. For instance, in example A, instead of offering money to buy the car, you simply ask to borrow it, and then drive it to Mexico. You never actually owned the car, so you cannot have obtained it by false pretenses.
  • Fraudulent misrepresentation is also almost completely identical to false pretenses, except that it is a civil offense (i.e. something you sue someone in civil court over). Obtaining something by false pretense, on the other hand, is a crime, which you can be jailed and fined for committing. Very often, if you commit one, you commit the other, so you can be arrested for this crime, and later sued for fraudulent misrepresentation.

Should I Contact an Attorney?

Every state has different laws on this topic, and some of the punishments can be very severe. If you've been accused of defrauding someone by false pretenses, it is very important that you contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. This crime has many different elements that all must be proved, so its important to consult with someone who can explain to you how best to present your case.