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False Pretense: Key Legal Definitions, Cases, and Defenses Explained

Updated: 6 days ago

Introduction to False Pretenses 

Definition: False pretense is a criminal act where someone obtains something of value (money, property, services) through deliberate misrepresentation of a past or existing fact. This misrepresentation is intended to induce the victim to part with their property.


Key Elements:

False Representation: A lie or misleading statement about a material fact (something important to the transaction).

Knowledge of Falsity: The perpetrator knows the statement is false.

Intent to Defraud: The perpetrator intends to deceive the victim and obtain something of value.

Reliance: The victim relies on the false statement and suffers a loss.

Distinction from Theft:  False pretense differs from theft in that the victim  willingly  parts with their property due to the deception. In theft, the property is taken without the victim's consent.

Variations in Law:  Specific elements and penalties for false pretense can vary  across jurisdictions. Some jurisdictions might have different statutes for crimes like larceny by trick or obtaining property by false statement.

Legal Importance:

Protecting Property: False pretense laws deter fraudulent activities and protect individuals and businesses from being deceived out of their valuables.

Promoting Fair Transactions:  These laws encourage honesty and transparency in commercial transactions.

Range of Offenses:  False pretense can cover a wide range of situations, from obtaining a loan with false financial information to using fake identities for purchases.

Severity of Penalties:  Penalties for false pretense can range from  fines  and  restitution  to  imprisonment, depending on the severity of the offense and the value of the property obtained.


A person lies about their employment history to secure a loan.

Someone uses a stolen credit card number to make online purchases.

An individual pretends to be a licensed contractor to receive payment for shoddy work.

Importance for Law Enforcement and Professionals:

Law enforcement officials rely on false pretense laws to investigate and prosecute deceptive financial crimes.

Lawyers specializing in commercial law or criminal defense might encounter false pretense issues in their practice.

Understanding false pretense is crucial for protecting individuals and businesses from fraudulent activities and ensuring fair transactions within the legal framework.

Legal Definition of False Pretense 

legal definition of false pretense

False pretense hinges on several essential elements that, when proven by the prosecution, establish the crime. Here's a breakdown of the key components.

1. False Representation:

Material Fact: The perpetrator must make a false statement about a material fact. This fact must be significant enough to influence the victim's decision.

Examples of Material Facts: Employment status, financial condition, ownership of property, qualifications for a service, or the nature of an offered good.

2. Knowledge of Falsity:

Scienter: The perpetrator must know the statement they are making is false. This is also referred to as "scienter," a legal term for guilty knowledge.

Reckless Disregard for Truth: In some jurisdictions, recklessly making a false statement (not caring whether it's true or false) might also be sufficient.

3. Intent to Defraud:

Deception for Gain: The perpetrator must have the intention to deceive the victim and obtain something of value (money, property, services) through the misrepresentation.

4. Reliance and Causation:

Induced Action: The victim must rely on the false statement and be induced to part with their property as a result. This reliance must be the direct cause of the victim's loss.

5. Property Transfer:

Loss of Value: The victim must suffer a loss due to the false pretense. This loss can be the transfer of money, property, or services the victim wouldn't have relinquished if they knew the truth.

Understanding the Importance of Each Element:

Each element plays a crucial role in establishing the crime of false pretense.  Here's why:

Material Fact: Ensures the deception is significant enough to impact the victim's decision.

Knowledge of Falsity: Prevents accidental misstatements from being criminalized.

Intent to Defraud: Focuses on the perpetrator's deliberate attempt to deceive for personal gain.

Reliance and Causation: Establishes a clear link between the false statement and the victim's loss.

Property Transfer: Confirms a concrete loss suffered by the victim due to the deception.

The Absence of Any Element:

If the prosecution fails to prove any of these essential elements beyond a reasonable doubt, the case for false pretense might not hold up in court.

False Pretense vs. Other Fraud Offenses 

false pretense vs. other fraud offenses

While all three terms (false pretense, fraud and embezzlement) involve deception and misappropriation of property, they have distinct characteristics.

1. False Pretense:

  • Deception at the Outset: The crime occurs when someone obtains something of value (money, property, services) through a misrepresentation made before receiving the item.

  • Key Element: Reliance on Falsehood: The victim relies on the false statement and willingly parts with their property.

  • Example: A person lies about their income on a loan application to secure a loan they wouldn't otherwise qualify for.

2. Fraud:

  • Broader Concept: Fraud is a wider legal concept encompassing various deceptive schemes to deprive someone of something of value. False pretense falls under the umbrella of fraud, but fraud can involve other methods besides misrepresentation.

  • Deception Can Be Ongoing: Fraud can involve ongoing concealment or trickery, not just a single initial misstatement.

  • Example: A business owner falsifies financial records to hide declining profits and attract investors.

3. Embezzlement:

  • Breach of Trust: Embezzlement occurs when someone who is entrusted with looking after another person's property (agent, employee, fiduciary) steals that property for their own use.

  • Lawful Possession: The key distinction is that the perpetrator initially gains lawful possession of the property through their trusted position.

  • Example: A cashier diverts cash payments received at a store for their personal gain.

Here's a table summarizing the key differences:


False Pretense



Timing of Deception

Before acquiring property

Can be ongoing

Not applicable

Initial Possession

Victim willingly parts with it

Can involve deception to gain possession

Lawful possession through trust

Key Element

Reliance on false statement

General intent to deceive

Breach of trust


Lying on a loan application

Falsifying financial records

Cashier stealing cash receipts

In essence:

  • False pretense focuses on a misrepresentation that tricks someone into giving up their property.

  • Fraud is a broader concept encompassing various deceptive schemes to deprive someone of value.

  • Embezzlement involves the theft of entrusted property by someone in a position of trust.

Defenses Against False Pretenses Charges 

defenses against false pretenses charges

Facing false pretense charges can be daunting, but there are legal defenses available. Here's a breakdown of some common defenses and their effectiveness.

1. Lack of Intent to Defraud:

Explanation: This defense argues that the defendant didn't intend to deceive the victim. They might have genuinely believed the statement they made was true, or they may not have foreseen the victim relying on it.

Effectiveness: This defense can be challenging to establish. The prosecution will likely present evidence to show the defendant knew the statement was false or acted recklessly.

2. Lack of Material Misrepresentation:

Argument: The defense claims the statement made by the defendant was not significant enough to influence the victim's decision. Even if it was false, the victim might have made the same choice regardless.

Effectiveness: The success depends on demonstrating the immateriality of the statement.

Courts consider the specific facts and the victim's level of sophistication when evaluating this defense.

3. No Reliance by the Victim:

Focus: This defense argues that the victim didn't rely on the defendant's statement. They might have had other reasons for parting with their property.

Effectiveness: This can be a difficult defense. The prosecution will likely focus on evidence showing the victim acted based on the defendant's misrepresentation.

4. Entrapment:

Circumstance: This defense applies if law enforcement induced the defendant to commit the crime through persuasion or pressure beyond simply presenting an opportunity.

Effectiveness: Entrapment is a complex defense with a high bar for success. The defendant needs to show law enforcement created the criminal intent and opportunity for the false pretense.

5. Mistake of Fact:

Honest Belief: This defense argues that the defendant mistakenly believed the statement they made was true. This mistake must be reasonable under the circumstances.

Effectiveness: The success hinges on demonstrating the reasonableness of the defendant's mistake. Evidence supporting their belief is crucial for this defense.

Additional Considerations:

Strength of the Defense: The effectiveness of each defense depends on the specific facts of the case, the evidence available, and the skill of the defense attorney.

Negotiation Plea Bargains: In some cases, depending on the strength of the case against you, negotiation with the prosecution for a plea bargain might be a viable option.

It's important to remember:

Never attempt to represent yourself in court. Consult with a qualified criminal defense attorney who can assess your case and advise you on the most appropriate legal defense strategy.

Disclose all relevant information to your lawyer to ensure they can effectively represent you.

By understanding these defenses and seeking legal counsel, individuals facing false pretense charges can explore their options and potentially challenge the prosecution's case.

Preventative Measures and Legal Advice 

preventative measures and legal advice

Here are some practical steps you can take to minimize your risk of falling victim to false pretense scams.

Before You Engage:

Be Wary of Unsolicited Offers: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Treat unsolicited offers with extreme caution, especially those promising quick money or high returns with little effort.

Verify Information Independently: Don't rely solely on information provided by the other party. Research companies, individuals, or investment opportunities yourself through trusted sources. Look for online reviews, check with the Better Business Bureau, or verify licensing information with relevant authorities.

Don't Feel Pressured to Act Quickly: Legitimate businesses won't pressure you into immediate decisions. Take your time to research, ask questions, and get everything in writing before committing.

Protecting Your Information:

Be Mindful of What You Share: Don't readily share personal or financial information over the phone, email, or with unknown individuals. Legitimate businesses typically won't ask for sensitive information through unsolicited channels.

Beware of Phishing Attempts: Phishing scams often involve emails or calls impersonating trusted institutions (banks, credit card companies) to trick you into revealing personal details. Be wary of unsolicited requests to verify or update your account information. Contact the institution directly through verified channels if unsure.

Use Strong Passwords and Multi-Factor Authentication: Use complex passwords for your online accounts and enable multi-factor authentication whenever possible. This adds an extra layer of security to prevent unauthorized access even if your password is compromised.

Financial Transactions:

Never Wire Money or Send Cash Payments Upfront: Legitimate businesses typically have secure payment options. Be wary of requests for wire transfers or cash payments, especially for unfamiliar individuals or companies.

Use Secure Payment Methods: For online transactions, use secure payment methods like credit cards with purchase protection or verified online payment gateways. Avoid using unsecured methods like personal checks or money transfers.

Review Bank Statements Regularly: Monitor your bank and credit card statements for any suspicious activity. Report any unauthorized transactions immediately to your financial institution.

Additional Tips:

Be Skeptical of High-Pressure Sales Tactics: If someone is pressuring you into a decision or using scare tactics, it's a red flag. Legitimate businesses will answer your questions and respect your right to consider your options.

Don't be Afraid to Walk Away: If something feels wrong or you have any doubts, trust your instincts and walk away from the situation. You can always gather more information and come back later if the offer is legitimate.

By following these steps and remaining cautious, you can significantly reduce your risk of falling victim to false pretense scams. Remember, if something seems suspicious, it probably is. Don't hesitate to walk away and protect yourself from potential financial losses.

In Conclusion 

False pretense is a serious crime where someone obtains something of value (money, property, services) through a deliberate misrepresentation of a past or existing fact. This deception tricks the victim into parting with their property.

Understanding the legal framework of false pretense is crucial for both individuals and businesses. Here's a breakdown of key points:

Essential Elements: The prosecution must prove the defendant made a false statement about a material fact, knew it was false, intended to deceive, and the victim relied on the lie, suffering a loss.

Distinguishing from Fraud and Embezzlement: While all involve deception, false pretense focuses on the initial misrepresentation, fraud is a broader concept, and embezzlement involves a breach of trust by someone entrusted with property.

Legal Defenses: Options like lack of intent, immaterial misrepresentation, or entrapment might be available, but their effectiveness depends on the specific case. Consulting a qualified defense attorney is essential.

Preventing False Pretense Scams:

Being aware of how these scams operate is your best defense. Here are some practical steps to take:

Be Wary of Unsolicited Offers: Question anything that seems too good to be true, especially high returns with minimal effort.

Verify Information Independently: Research companies, individuals, or investments yourself before engaging.

Protect Your Information: Don't share personal or financial details readily, and be cautious of phishing attempts.

Secure Financial Transactions: Never send cash or wire money upfront, and use secure payment methods for online transactions.

Monitor Statements: Review bank and credit card statements regularly for suspicious activity.

By understanding the legal aspects of false pretense, potential defenses, and crucial preventative measures, you can significantly reduce your risk of falling victim to these deceptive schemes. Remember, if something feels suspicious, trust your instincts and walk away to protect yourself financially.


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