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What is Theft by Deception?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Theft by deception is a form of fraudulent activity, with someone using deception in order to gain access to services or property. For example, if someone writes a check on a bank account that he or she knows is no longer open and uses that check to pay for a meal, that person is committing theft by deception. Courts take different views of this crime, depending on how much damage is inflicted upon the victim.

There are a number of ways in which people can commit this crime. It may involve creating information that is false or failing to correct false information, such as pretending to have professional certifications or allowing someone to think that such certifications are held. Likewise, failing to disclose information that could be relevant to a transaction or preventing someone from accessing relevant information are also forms of deception.

Using this deceptive information, the thief gains control of property or services from the victim. Theft by deception is different from an innocent mistake. In the example above, for example, if someone accidentally wrote a check on the wrong account and corrected the error as soon as it was realized, this would not be a crime. If, however, the person realized the mistake and did nothing, this would be considered theft.

This type of theft can involve an elaborately structured scheme that requires participation from accomplices, forging of documents, and other activities in order to support the story being created by the deception. It can also be much simpler. Some people are adept at using minimal resources for the purpose of deception. This reduces the risk that the crime will be uncovered and can also make the criminal harder to track. If, for example, someone does not have an accomplice, there is less likelihood of finding that person and working out a plea agreement that could allow police to pursue the mastermind of the scheme.

Advertising puffery is exempt from theft by deception laws. When advertisers use puffery, they make claims that are clearly subjective and would not be taken literally by a reasonable person. For example, when a hamburger joint says that it has “the best burgers in the world,” customers cannot claim that they were defrauded if they find an example of a better burger. If puffery is ambiguous, however, a court may determine that the advertiser is actually in the wrong.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon926339 — On Jan 18, 2014

I read a book by Jesse Greenwald called "Document Fraud and Other Crimes of Deception." It has less crap and real truths about how simple it really is to commit fraud and create any document if required to do so. A trained monkey and a 70 plus IQ can do it.

By anon355462 — On Nov 16, 2013

By anon341940 — On Jul 16, 2013

What if you are with someone in a relationship and for two years, they lied about who they are to get thousands of dollars from you to pay for things they don't have, and then you find out their true identity? Is this theft by deception?

By anon281418 — On Jul 23, 2012

What if a person is working a job company and says that someone else is working but is doing the job? As well as bringing a non-worker into the job to help the person on the job?

By anon276518 — On Jun 24, 2012

I heard of a sad case, which I believe to be theft by deception, in which a man's grown son (in his 30's) borrowed $18,000 from his father with the promise of re-paying him in 60 days after the son re-financed his house.

The father mortgaged his own house in order to get the money to loan his son. The son did re-finance his home and got over $30,000 in a cash out. He did not pay his father a cent.

The sad thing is the father is a retired (20 year veteran police officer) on disability. To make matters worse, the son is a police officer and a deacon of a church. The father had to sell his home in order to pay off the mortgage on the money his son borrowed. The son had no intentions whatsoever of paying his father. That was about eight years ago. The father has received no money to date from the son and the son is still a police officer and a deacon.

By subway11 — On Feb 23, 2011

Sneakers41 - I heard about that case. What was sad was that so many people invested their entire life savings with him and now have nothing.

What I wonder about it where is he hiding the rest of his money? They were able to recover close to $240 million but he defrauded investors of about $65 billion so he must be still hiding money somewhere.

I heard that one of his son’s committed suicide. This was the one that received the initial confession of the fraud from his father.

I personally believe that the whole family was involved because the amount of money that he was making was unprecedented. I believe that the family knew all along about the fraud and went along with it in order to enjoy the lifestyle that they were living.

It was not until Madoff was arrested that they all started to change their tune.

By sneakers41 — On Feb 22, 2011

When I think of theft by deception, the first name that comes to by mind is Bernie Madoff. Bernie Madoff was that investment advisor that pled guilty to 11 felonies for defrauding his investors of $65 billion dollars.

He was arrested in December 2008 and is serving a sentence of 150 years in prison. He gave up $170 million and his wife gave up $85 million which left her with a little less than three million dollars.

Bernie Madoff developed fake trading reports based on what Madoff wanted each customer to earn. Sometimes the earnings were set before the customer even opened the account.

As a result of his theft many charities also went bankrupt and had to close because of his dealing. The Kentucky University, the Lappin Foundation and a slew of Jewish hospitals were forced to close.

This crime was so bad that it fell outside of the scope of the sentencing guidelines. At the time the sentencing guidelines for this type of federal offense only list losses up to $400 million dollars which was a drop in the bucket compared to the amount Bernie Madoff defrauded investors of. This was the worst case in criminal theft in U.S. history.

By stolaf23 — On Feb 22, 2011

Another common form of felony theft in scamming is calling people with confusing messages. I was reading something a few months ago about the rise in scamming on the elderly. Apparently groups will call people who they know are old and likely have hearing problems and pose as grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and other young relatives. They will claim to have gotten into a car accident, been robbed while abroad, or even arrested on bizarre charges, and ask the elderly person to wire money to an account that they name in the call.

It is important to remember that if a relative is arrested, the police will likely inform you before the relative does; in the time of an accident or theft, they will likely still contact the police before asking random relatives for "help".

By vogueknit17 — On Feb 22, 2011

Theft by deception is rife on the internet, where people constantly receive spam emails trying to convince them of something, or are often invited to join "free" trials of products or services. To avoid that sort of criminal theft, it is important to read all the fine print whenever you agree to anything on the internet-companies which ask for your credit card number will definitely use it, so be careful when buying online, and don't give your card to these random offers. If they don't have enough of your personal information, they cannot accomplish their theft.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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