False Pretenses

Criminal Law.  A statutory crime consisting of a false representation of a material present or past fact which causes the victim to pass title to his property to the wrongdoer, who knows his representation to be false and intends to defraud the victim.


The elements of the crime of theft by false pretenses are:

  • A false pretense or representation;
  • The intent to defraud the owner of his or her property; and
  • The False pretense or representation materially influenced the owner to part with the title to the property.

Reference Desk

California Penal Code § 532:

(a) Every person who knowingly and designedly, by any false or fraudulent representation or pretense, defrauds any other person of money, labor, or property, whether real or personal, or who causes or procures others to report falsely of his or her wealth or mercantile character, and by thus imposing upon any person obtains credit, and thereby fraudulently gets possession of money or property, or obtains the labor or service of another, is punishable in the same manner and to the same extent as for larceny of the money or property so obtained.

(b) Upon a trial for having, with an intent to cheat or defraud another designedly, by any false pretense, obtained the signature of any person to a written instrument, or having obtained from any person any labor, money, or property, whether real or personal, or valuable thing, the defendant cannot be convicted if the false pretense was expressed in language unaccompanied by a false token or writing, unless the pretense, or some note or memorandum thereof is in writing, subscribed by or in the handwriting of the defendant, or unless the pretense is proven by the testimony of two witnesses, or that of one witness and corroborating circumstances. This section does not apply to a prosecution for falsely representing or personating another, and, in that assumed character, marrying, or receiving any money or property.

Bright v. Sheriff, 521 P.2d 371 (Nev. 1974):

“Our statute makes it a crime to obtain money by false pretenses.  Elements of the crime are: (1) intent to defraud; (2) a false representation; (3) reliance on that representation; and, (4) that the victim be defrauded.”

Encyclopedia Britannica (11th Edition):

FALSE PRETENCES, in English law, the obtaining from any other person by any false pretence any chattel, money or valuable security, with intent to defraud. It is an indictable misdemeanour under the Larceny Act of 1861. The broad distinction between this offence and larceny is that in the former the owner intends to part with his property, in the latter he does not. This offence dates as a statutory crime practically from 1756. At common law the only remedy originally available for an owner who had been deprived of his goods by fraud was an indictment for the crime of cheating, or a civil action for deceit. These remedies were insufficient to cover all cases where money or other properties had been obtained by false pretences, and the offence was first partially created by a statute of Henry VIII. (1541), which enacted that if any person should falsely and deceitfully obtain any money, goods, &c., by means of any false token or counterfeit letter made in any other man’s name, the offender should suffer any punishment other than death, at the discretion of the judge. The scope of the offence was enlarged to include practically all false pretences by the act of 1756, the provisions of which were embodied in the Larceny Act 1861.

The principal points to notice are that the pretence must be a false pretence of some existing fact, made for the purpose of inducing the prosecutor to part with his property (e.g. it was held not to be a false pretence to promise to pay for goods on delivery), and it may be by either words or conduct. The property, too, must have been actually obtained by the false pretence. The owner must be induced by the pretence to make over the absolute and immediate ownership of the goods, otherwise it is “larceny by means of a trick.” It is not always easy, however, to draw a distinction between the various classes of offences. In the case where a man goes into a restaurant and orders a meal, and, after consuming it, says that he has no means of paying for it, it was usual to convict for obtaining food by false pretences. But R. v. Jones, 1898, L.R. 1 Q.B. 119 decided that it is neither larceny nor false pretences, but an offence under the Debtors Act 1869, of obtaining credit by fraud. (See also Cheating; Fraud; Larceny.)

United States.—American statutes on this subject are mainly copied from the English statutes, and the courts there in a general way follow the English interpretations. The statutes of each state must be consulted. There is no Federal statute, though there are Federal laws providing penalties for false personation of the lawful owner of public stocks, &c., or of persons entitled to pensions, prize money, &c. (U.S. Rev. Stats. § 5435), or the false making of any order purporting to be a money order (id. § 5463).

In Arizona, obtaining money or property by falsely personating another is punishable as for larceny (Penal Code, 1901, § 479). Obtaining credit by false pretences as to wealth and mercantile character is punishable by six months’ imprisonment and a fine not exceeding three times the value of the money or property obtained (id. § 481).

In Illinois, whoever by any false representation or writing signed by him, of his own respectability, wealth or mercantile correspondence or connexions, obtains credit and thereby defrauds any person of money, goods, chattels or any valuable thing, or who procures another to make a false report of his honesty, wealth, &c., shall return the money, goods, &c., and be fined and imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year (Crim. Code, 1903, ch. xxxviii. §§ 96, 97). Obtaining money or property by bogus cheques, the “confidence game” (Dorr v. People, 1907, § 228, Ill. 216), or “three card monte,” sleight of hand, fortune-telling, &c., is punishable by imprisonment for from one to ten years (id. §§ 98, 100). Obtaining goods from warehouse, mill or wharf by fraudulent receipt wrongly stating amount of goods deposited—by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than ten years (id. § 124). Fraudulent use of railroad passes is a misdemeanour (id. 125a).

In Massachusetts it is simple larceny to obtain by false pretences the money or personal chattel of another (Rev. Laws, 1902, ch. ccviii. § 26). Obtaining by a false pretence with intent to defraud the signature of a person to a written instrument, the false making whereof would be forgery, is punishable by imprisonment in a state prison or by fine (id. § 27).

In New York, obtaining property by false pretences, felonious breach of trust and embezzlement are included in the term “larceny” (Penal Code, § 528; Paul v. Dumar, 106 N.Y. 508; People v. Tattlekan, 1907, 104 N.Y. Suppl. 805), but the methods of proof required to establish each crime remain as before the code. Obtaining lodging and food on credit at hotel or lodging house with intent to defraud is a misdemeanour (Pen. Code, § 382). Purchase of property by false pretences as to person’s means or ability to pay is not criminal when in writing signed by the party to be charged (Pen. Code, § 544).

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