When an individual commits the crime of false pretenses, they misrepresent a fact in order to acquire someone else’s property. Obtaining property through false pretenses is a crime, punishable in most states by fines and imprisonment. While state laws vary in defining this crime, the general idea is the same: to be found guilty of false pretenses, the prosecutor must show that the individual acquired the property at issue by intentionally misstating a fact. This means that if an individual obtains another’s property by stating a fact that they mistakenly believe to be true, they have not committed the crime of false pretenses. Depending on the state statute, the property acquired by false pretenses can include tangible property, like a car or house, and intangible property, such as information that has been obtained.
Other common defined uses
False pretenses is often confused with the crime of larceny-by-trick. Larceny-by-trick is almost identical to the crime of false pretenses. However, there is one big difference: In the crime of false pretenses, the title to the property is actually transferred to the perpetrator, whereas someone found guilty of larceny-by-trick does not hold the title. A party commits larceny-by-trick when they steal another party’s property by deception. Therefore, no actual transfer of title occurs with larceny-by-trick. For instance, if an individual tells an elderly man that she is his long-lost daughter with the intent of causing him to transfer the title of his vacation house to her, she has committed the crime of false pretenses. If, instead, the individual convinced the elderly man that she was just going to borrow his car but never came back with it, this would be larceny or larceny-by-trick.
False Pretenses vs. Fraudulent Misrepresentation
The crime of false pretenses has a civil counterpart as well: a civil cause of action known as fraudulent misrepresentation. While fraudulent misrepresentation has the same legal elements as false pretenses, the court system in which a party will be charged for the crime differs. If a party intentionally deceives another, causing them to transfer title of their property, the city or state will prosecute the perpetrator for the crime of false pretenses. However, to allow the victim a remedy for the crime, the civil courts allow an individual to bring a fraudulent misrepresentation action for damages against the thief.
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