California Penal Code 532 PC defines the crime of theft by false pretenses as defrauding someone of money or property by way of false promises or representations. The offense may be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony and carries a penalty of up to 3 years in jail or prison.
523 PC states that “very 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.”
Basically, theft by false pretenses is the act of convincing someone to voluntarily give you their property, by telling them something that isn’t true or making a promise that won’t be kept.1 Because we normally think of theft as the act of taking away someone’s property against their will, it may surprise you to learn that the crime of theft by false pretenses even exists. And, indeed, many people who are charged with this crime are rightfully shocked to find out that they are being called “thieves.”
But the fact is that “false pretenses” is a theft crime just like shoplifting or grand theft auto. If you are charged with this crime, you may face the same kinds of penalties as someone who is charged with one of those more conventional kinds of theft.
Theft by false pretenses can be either petty theft or grand theft, depending on the value of the property that is taken.2
If the property stolen is worth more than nine hundred fifty dollars ($950), or is a firearm or a car, then it is grand theft.3 The maximum penalty for grand theft is EITHER up to one (1) year in county jail, OR sixteen (16) months, two (2) years, or three (3) years in jail or prison, depending on how the prosecutor chooses to charge the crime.4
If the property is worth less than nine hundred fifty dollars ($950), then false pretense theft is petty theft. The maximum penalty will be a fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000), imprisonment in the county jail for up to six (6) months, or both the fine and imprisonment.5
Luckily, there are legal defenses that could help you beat charges of theft by false pretenses. With the help of an experienced California criminal defense attorney, you can figure out which defenses make the most sense for the facts of your case. Two very common and helpful defenses for these charges are:
- You did not intend to deceive the supposed theft victim, and
- The person you are supposed to have stolen from did not actually rely on anything you said.6
In this article, our California criminal defense attorneys will address the following:
- 1. What is the definition of theft by false pretenses?
- 2. What are the penalties for a 532 PC conviction?
- 3. What are the best defenses to present in court?
- 4. Are there theft crimes related to false pretenses?
If you would like more information after reading this article, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
The California crime of theft by false pretenses consists of lying to someone else in order to persuade them to give you their property or something of value.
You cannot be convicted of this crime unless the prosecutor can prove that several more specific pieces of this story — known as “elements” of the crime — are true. These are:
The first element of the crime of false pretense theft is that you need to have knowingly and intentionally deceived someone-that is, made someone believe something that wasn’t true-by saying or showing them something that was actually false.8 This means that you need to have known that what you were saying wasn’t true, and you need to have intended that the other person believes it anyway.
Example: Tom injures his back while working as a truck driver and begins to collect workers’ compensation benefits. In order to continue receiving benefits, he tells workers’ comp officials that he cannot handle tasks like showering, dressing, and cooking without help and can only move with the help of a cane or walker.
The workers’ compensation insurance company sends a private investigator to follow Tom one day. The private investigator makes a video of Tom walking and driving without assistance and doing some very strenuous things on a fishing boat, including piloting the boat, climbing a ladder, and lifting heavy objects.
In addition to possibly being guilty of workers’ compensation
fraud, Tom is guilty of theft by false pretenses. He must have known that his statements to the workers’ compensation board were false . . . and he made these statements intentionally, in order to deceive the board so that he could get benefits.9
According to Ventura County criminal defense attorney John Murray10 :
“Of course, as we all know, sometimes the line between ‘true’ and ‘false’ can be a little blurry. For this reason, California law defines a ‘false pretense’ pretty broadly. It isn’t just limited to straightforward statements of fact that you know aren’t true. “
A “false pretense” also includes:
- Making a statement recklessly, without knowing for sure that it is not true…but also without any information that would justify a reasonable belief that it is true;
- Failing to give information that you would have an obligation to give under the circumstances; and
- Making a promise that you do not intend to keep.11
Example: Norman is a chiropractor who tells patients that he can cure serious diseases, including cancer, using an experimental electric machine. It turns out that the machine is more or less worthless and has no scientific evidence behind it. Norman’s patients pay him but continue to get sicker.
Norman is guilty of theft by false pretenses even if he didn’t know for sure that his claims about his machine were not true. He recklessly claimed that the machine could cure diseases without any good reason for believing that it was true.12
Another element of the California crime of false pretense theft is that you need to have intended to persuade another person to give up their property to you.13 If you only intended to deceive them for some other purpose, or for no purpose at all, you can’t be convicted.
Example: Paul decides to tell people that he is a messenger of God and that the end of the world is coming. He doesn’t believe this, but is curious how people will react. His story and photo spread over the internet, and lots of people believe that what he is saying is true. People start sending him money, which he has not requested.
Paul isn’t guilty of theft by false pretenses because he never intended to persuade people to give him money.
One interesting thing about this crime is that “property” includes someone’s labor.14 So if, for example, you get someone to do your yard work for a month and promise them that you’ll pay them at the end of the month, when really you have no intention of ever paying them . . . you may have violated Penal Code 532 PC.
Another key element of the crime of false pretenses is that the person who gives up their property needs to have done so because they were relying on what you told them-or, in other words, because they believed that your false statement was true.15
Sometimes, the supposed “victim” of the theft hands over their property for more than one reason, only one of which is the fact that they believe something that isn’t true. In these cases, it can still be the crime of theft by false pretenses…as long as the false pretense was one important factor causing them to give up their property.16
Example: Ted has recently had his checking account closed by his bank for lack of funds. But he discovers that he can still get money from ATMs using the card connected to that account. So he visits several Safeway grocery stores and takes out thousands of dollars from the store ATMs.
Safeway’s machines let Ted have the money for two reasons: first, because he is using his card to withdraw money (and thus implying that his card is valid); second, because a glitch in the bank’s computer system is allowing him to do so. Because Ted’s use of his card-which is an implied representation that his card is valid-is an important reason why he is getting the money, he is guilty of theft by false pretenses . . . even though the computer glitch is another important reason.17
Another important thing the prosecutor needs in order to get a conviction for theft by false pretenses under 532 PC is concrete proof that the defendant actually made the false pretense (that is, said something false or created a false impression). This proof can be in any of the following forms:
- A false writing or “false token” (like fake money) that accompanied the false pretense,
- A note or memorandum of the false pretense that is signed or handwritten by the defendant,
- Testimony from two witnesses that the defendant made the false pretense, OR
- Testimony from one witness PLUS corroboration (additional evidence that supports the conclusion that the defendant made the pretense).18
So, for example, if all a prosecutor has is testimony from the purported victim claiming that s/he was duped, that is not enough to convict someone of theft by false pretenses. There would need to be at least some other form of “additional evidence.”
But, in cases where a defendant is charged with using false pretenses to steal from a number of people, all in the same way, it’s enough for the prosecution to have two witnesses who can testify that the defendant made the false pretense at any point. The prosecution does NOT have to offer two witnesses (or a witness and additional evidence) who can testify to each individual instance of false pretenses. This is best explained by an example:
Example: Lelas runs a scam “credit counseling” business. When people with bad credit contact him for help, he tells them that he can improve their credit rating for a fee of around a thousand dollars. After taking the fee, Lelas then creates false identities for his clients and tells them to use these false identities to apply for loans and credit cards-which is blatantly illegal.
Lelas provides these “services” to Jane and then to Mary. Both Jane and Mary testify that he promised to help them and took their money. This is enough evidence to convict Lelas of theft by false pretenses. Even though Jane and Mary aren’t testifying about the same exact same instance of the scam, they could both testify that Lelas ran the scam.19
Theft by false pretenses is punished the same way as other forms of theft in California.20 The punishment depends on the type and value of the property that is supposed to have been “stolen.”
When the property stolen is worth less than nine hundred fifty dollars ($950) and is not a car, a firearm, livestock, or certain kinds of agricultural products…then a Penal Code 532 PC violation is considered petty theft.21
Petty theft is a misdemeanor in California law. The maximum punishment is six (6) months in county jail, a fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000), or both.22
However, if the property taken is worth more than nine hundred fifty dollars ($950), or is a car or a firearm, then theft by false pretenses becomes a form of grand theft (California Penal Code 487 PC).23
In most cases, the crime of grand theft is a wobbler.24 Wobblers are crimes that a prosecutor may choose to charge either as a misdemeanor or as a felony. Prosecutors will generally make this choice based on the facts of the case and the criminal history (if any) of the defendant.
If grand theft is charged as a misdemeanor, the penalty is up to one (1) year in county jail.25 But if it is charged as a felony, the penalty is sixteen (16) months, two (2) years, or three (3) years in prison.26
There is one exception to the rule that grand theft is a wobbler. If the theft of a firearm is involved, grand theft will always be charged as a felony.27 The penalty will be either sixteen (16) months, two (2) years, or three (3) years in state prison.28
Theft by false pretenses is a serious crime. Because it usually involves facts that are more complex than those you’d find in most theft crimes, it can be hard to know how to defend yourself against these charges. But there are legal defenses you can use to defend yourself if you are charged under Penal Code 532 PC. Two of the most important of these are:
As we discussed above, you can’t be convicted of false pretense theft unless you intentionally deceived someone.29 This can mean that you told an intentional lie, or that you:
- withheld or concealed crucial information intending to mislead someone,
- recklessly claimed something was true without knowing if it really was true, OR
- promised to do something when you never intended to do.30
This may be the toughest element of the crime of theft by false pretenses to prove…since it’s hard for anyone else to know exactly what was going on in your head. Maybe you genuinely believed that what you were saying was true, or that you would be able to keep your promise. You also may have made a mistake of fact that caused you to say something that wasn’t true…but not with the intent to deceive.
When you are accused of a crime, the prosecution bears the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that all of the elements of the crime are true. If you can introduce even a reasonable doubt that you intended to deceive, then you cannot be convicted of false pretense theft.
Another important element of the crime of theft by false pretenses is that the supposed “victim” of your crime has to have relied on the false pretense in giving you their property.31 This can be another tough element to prove because it depends on a complicated analysis of the other person’s motives.
In many cases, people are charged with theft by false pretenses in the context of complicated business or financial dealings with others. The people who are the so-called “victims” may not be victims at all. They may have known exactly what they were getting into . . . but later may try to turn the matter into a criminal case when things don’t go their way.
This is where the legal defense of lack of reliance comes in. If you can show that the person you supposedly stole from did not rely on any deceptive statements by you, then you cannot be convicted of false pretense theft.
Theft by false pretenses is related to a large number of other California property crimes, including white-collar crimes and various forms of criminal fraud. Some of the most important of these are:
If you pay for something with a bad check, and obtain someone else’s property as a result, that could be theft by false pretenses-the false pretense being the implied statement that the check was good. But in those circumstances, you could also be charged with the California crime of check fraud (Penal Code 476 PC).
The crime of check fraud consists of passing a fake or altered check with the intent to defraud someone else.32 It is considered a form of forgery (470 PC).33 Thus, it is a
wobbler and may be punished by either one (1) year in county jail (if tried as a misdemeanor), OR by sixteen (16) months, two (2) years, or three (3) years in prison (if charged as a felony).34
These days, theft by false pretenses may occur over the internet as often as it occurs in person. If you are charged with false pretenses theft for a transaction that occurred over email or the internet, you may also face charges of internet fraud in California law. You can be charged with internet fraud for things like advertising items for sale on the internet, accepting payment for those items in advance, and then never delivering them.
This kind of internet fraud is actually a form of the federal crime of wire fraud.35 As a federal crime, it can lead to extremely harsh penalties…including a fine of up to one million ($1,000,000), or up to thirty (30) years in federal prison!36
Earlier in this article, we discussed the example of Tom, who was charged with false pretense theft for engaging in a form of workers’ compensation fraud. Similarly, theft by false pretenses may be charged along with the crime of unemployment insurance fraud when the defendant has allegedly lied in order to obtain or continue receiving unemployment benefits.
The crime of unemployment insurance fraud is, in most cases, another
wobbler.37 The maximum penalty, when it is a misdemeanor, is one (1) year in county jail, and the defendant may be sentenced to time in state prison when it is a felony.38
If you are charged with false pretenses theft, and your victim is sixty-five (65) or older, you may also face charges of senior fraud (also known as elder fraud).
You may be charged with senior fraud if you are accused of committing any form of theft (including theft by false pretenses) against a person 65 or older, as long as you either: 1) knew or reasonably should have known that they were that age, or 2) were their caretaker when the supposed theft occurred.39
This kind of senior fraud is a misdemeanor when the value of the property taken is nine hundred fifty dollars ($950) or less. In this case, the maximum penalty is one (1) year in county jail and/or a fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000).40
And if the property taken is worth more than nine hundred fifty dollars ($950), senior fraud becomes a wobbler. When it is charged as a felony, the maximum penalty is as much as four (4) years in prison and/or a fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).41
Call us for help…
If you or loved one is charged with Penal Code 532 PC theft by false pretenses and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.
To learn about the Nevada crime of obtaining money by false pretenses, go to our page on the Nevada crime of obtaining money by false pretenses.
- Penal Code 532 PC – False pretenses; obtaining money, labor or property; punishment; evidence necessary to support conviction. (“(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.”)
- Penal Code 484 – Theft defined.
See also Penal Code 487 PC – Grand theft defined.
- Penal Code 487 PC – Grand theft defined.
- Penal Code 489 PC – Grand theft; punishment. (“Grand theft is punishable as follows: (a) When the grand theft involves the theft of a firearm, by imprisonment in the state prison for 16 months, two, or three years. (b) In all other cases, by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.”)
See also Penal Code 1170(h) PC – Determinate sentencing.
- Penal Code 490 PC – Petty theft; punishment.
- Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (“CALCRIM”) 1804 – Theft by False Pretense.
- Our California and federal criminal defense attorneys have local Los Angeles law offices in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Pomona, Torrance, Van Nuys, West Covina, and Whittier. We have additional law offices conveniently located throughout the state in Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, Sacramento, and several nearby cities.
- CALCRIM 1804 – Theft by False Pretense. (“(“To prove that the defendant is guilty of this crime, the People must prove that: 1 The defendant knowingly and intentionally deceived a property owner [or the owner’s agent] by false or fraudulent representation or pretense; . . . .”)
- Based on People v. Webb, (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 688, 693-94.
- Ventura criminal defense attorney John Murray defends clients throughout Los Angeles and Ventura counties. He has scored “not guilty” verdicts in serious sex crimes and DUI cases. Murray has been featured as an expert legal commentator on the Fox News Channel.
- CALCRIM 1804 – Theft by False Pretense. (“[Someone makes a false pretense if, intending to deceive, he or she does [one or more of] the following: [1 Gives information he or she knows is false(./;)] [OR 2 Makes a misrepresentation recklessly without information that justifies a reasonable belief in its truth(./;)] [OR 3 Does not give information when he or she has an obligation to do so(./;)] [OR 4 Makes a promise not intending to do what he or she promises.]].”)
- Based on People v. Schmitt, (1957) 155 Cal.App.2d 87.
- CALCRIM 1804 – Theft by False Pretense. (“To prove that the defendant is guilty of this crime, the People must prove that: . . . 2 The defendant did so intending to persuade the owner [or the owner’s agent] to let the defendant [or another person] take possession and ownership of the property; . . . .”)
- Same. (“[Property includes money, labor, and real or personal property.]”)
- Same. (“To prove that the defendant is guilty of this crime, the People must prove that: . . . 3 The owner [or the owner’s agent] let the defendant [or another person] take possession and ownership of the property because the owner [or the owner’s agent] relied on the representation or pretense.”)
- Same. (“[An owner [or an owner’s agent] relies on false pretense, if the falsehood is an important part of the reason the owner [or agent] decides to give up the property. The false pretense must be an important factor, but it does not have to be the only factor the owner [or agent] considers in making the decision. [If the owner [or agent] gives up property some time after the pretense is made, the owner [or agent] must do so because he or she relies on the pretense.]]”)
- Based on People v. Whight, (1995) 36 Cal.App.4th 1143, 1155-56. (“As it turned out, there was a glitch in Wells Fargo’s system concerning defendant’s account. Rather than transmitting a code declining the transaction because defendant’s account had been closed, Wells Fargo kept returning a code to Safeway indicating that there was no response. This, in turn, caused Safeway to treat each transaction as a ‘stand-in’ without a verification or approval from the computer banking system. Given these facts, it can hardly be said that Safeway relied upon the Well Fargo’s computer system instead of defendant’s representation that his card was valid. Even assuming that the use of a computer verification system can be described as an investigation, the computer system in fact never approved defendant’s transactions. As a result, Safeway had nothing to rely upon except defendant’s implicit representation that his ATM card was valid. It elected to take the risk and to rely solely on defendant’s representation. On this record, the element of reliance or causation was indisputably established.”)
- CALCRIM 1804 – Theft by False Pretense. (“You may not find the defendant guilty of this crime unless the People have proved that: [A The false pretense was accompanied by either a false writing or false token(;/.)] [OR] [(A/B) There was a note or memorandum of the pretense signed or handwritten by the defendant(;/.)] [OR] [(A/B/C) Testimony from two witnesses or testimony from a single witness along with other evidence supports the conclusion that the defendant made the pretense.]”)
- Based on People v. Gentry, (1991) 234 Cal.App.3d 131, 139. (“Gentry argues this implied pretense has not been proven by two or more witnesses, or one witness and other corroboration as required by Penal Code section 532, subdivision (b) (formerly Pen. Code, § 1110). We disagree. Manchester was not the only witness who testified to Gentry’s initial statements to persons in desperate financial straits; Terry, disguising herself as Wolfe, received the same advice for the same price from Gentry. The multiple witnesses required under Penal Code section 532, subdivision (b), need not testify to the same instance of pretense. When more than one witness testifies to a defendant’s false pretenses, even though made on separate occasions, the multiple witness requirement is met as long as the same type of scheme is involved and the same manner is employed.”)
- Penal Code 484 –
- Penal Code 487 PC
- Penal Code 490 PC – Petty theft; punishment. (“Petty theft is punishable by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or both.”)
- Penal Code 487 PC – Grand theft defined.
- Penal Code 489 PC – Grand theft; punishment. (“Grand theft is punishable as follows: . . . (b) In all other cases, by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.”)
- Same. See also Penal Code 1170(h) PC. (“(h)(1) Except as provided in paragraph (3), a felony punishable pursuant to this subdivision where the term is not specified in the underlying offense shall be punishable by a term of imprisonment in a county jail for 16 months, or two or three years.”)
- Penal Code 489 PC – Grand theft; punishment. (“Grand theft is punishable as follows: (a) When the grand theft involves the theft of a firearm, by imprisonment in the state prison for 16 months, two, or three years.”)
- CALCRIM 1804 – Theft by False Pretense. (“To prove that the defendant is guilty of this crime, the People must prove that: 1 The defendant knowingly and intentionally deceived a property owner [or the owner’s agent] by false or fraudulent representation or pretense; . . . .”)
- Same. (“Someone makes a false pretense if, intending to deceive, he or she does [one or more of] the following: [1 Gives information he or she knows is false(./;)] [OR 2 Makes a misrepresentation recklessly without information that justifies a reasonable belief in its truth(./;)] [OR 3 Does not give information when he or she has an obligation to do so(./;)] [OR 4 Makes a promise not intending to do what he or she promises.]]”)
- Penal Code 476 PC – Forgery
- Penal Code 473 PC – Forgery; punishment.
See also Penal Code 1170(h) PC. (“(h)(1) Except as provided in paragraph (3), a felony punishable pursuant to this subdivision where the term is not specified in the underlying offense shall be punishable by a term of imprisonment in a county jail for 16 months, or two or three years.”)
- 18 United States Code (“U.S.C.”) § 1343 – Fraud by wire, radio, or television.
- Unemployment Insurance Code 2122.
- Penal Code 368 –