What are False Pretenses?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 January 2020
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When someone uses a misstatement of the facts to obtain a benefit or the title to a piece of property, this is considered false pretenses. In this form of theft, the rightful owner of the property gives it up on the basis of the statements made by the thief. If the fraud is identified, the thief can be liable for legal penalties if it can be demonstrated that the thief knowingly used false pretenses to obtain an object or benefit. If the lies later turn out to be true, or the thief thinks that something is a lie but it's actually the truth, this is not considered false pretenses.

Misstatement of the facts can take a number of forms. Someone can lie about a past, present, or future fact directly, or can omit information with the deliberate intent to defraud. People can also defraud through their actions, as for example when someone represents him or herself as a law enforcement officer. In all cases, the thief is using a deliberate distortion of the facts to gain an advantage.


A classic example of false pretenses used to obtain benefits occurs in some cases of insurance fraud. If someone lies about past events on an insurance application to obtain insurance benefits, this is false pretenses. The insurance company is entitled to drop the insured if it uncovers the fraud, and fraud can also result in fines, jail time, and other punishments if it is prosecuted and proved in a court of law. Likewise, people can lie to receive other benefits, such as retirement benefits.

The theft of objects with false pretenses can involve a variety of misstatements, such as failing to disclose that a car has been in an accident or lying about the value of an object involved in a trade. If the victim of the theft can show that the thief was deliberately misrepresenting information in order to obtain title, this can be punishable by law, with penalties which vary depending on the nature of the crime and jurisdiction.

Individuals can protect themselves from thieves who use false pretenses by taking care to verify facts before signing over title to their property. If the reasons for acquiring an object are legitimate, the acquirer will usually not mind if the owner takes the time to confirm some information relevant to the situation, such as asking to see proof of identity. People who are concerned about being falsely accused of misstating facts should take the time to document which facts were stated and that the original owner understood and recognized those facts.


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