California Theft by False Pretenses

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California Penal Code 532 defines theft by false pretenses. The state prohibits people from making false promises, thereby convincing someone else to give up their property.

People often think of theft as forcibly taking property belonging to others. In other words, someone takes property against the will of another person or entity. On the other hand, theft by false pretenses involves someone willfully giving up his or her property. However, he or she does this only because of false information deliberately provided by another person or entity. Some may describe this crime as theft through deception.

The penalties for theft by false pretenses are determined by the value of the stolen property. The state may classify the crime as petty theft if the value of the property stolen is assessed at less than $950, or as grand theft if the property is assessed at more than $950. Grand theft also includes firearms and automobiles. Grand theft convictions carry penalties of up to three years in state prison plus fines, while petty theft penalties include up to six months in jail plus fines.

The 2002 Movie Catch Me if You Can is based on Frank Abignale Jr.’s semi-autobiographical book of the same name, and depicts a young man stealing $2.5 million before his 21st birthday. He used confidence tricks and false pretenses to steal every cent.


man counting cash and cell phones


Defining Theft By False Pretenses in California


Theft by false pretenses in the State of California is outlined in Penal code 532, which defines a few key elements.

  • The defendant intentionally deceived the victim through false pretenses or misrepresentation.
  • The defendant did so in order to receive money or property from the victim.
  • The victim relied on the false pretenses or false representation of the defendant.


  • The defendant actually misrepresented himself or herself, or made promises under false  pretenses.

The prosecution can illustrate false pretenses through any of the following:

    1. A false token
    2. A written note regarding the false pretenses signed by the defendant
    3. The testimony of two witnesses regarding the defendant’s false pretenses
    4. The testimony of one witness plus corroborating evidence





A very real-world example of theft by false pretenses is illustrated by the Bre-X mining scandal , which occurred during the early to mid-1990’s. A Canadian gold mining company purchased a mine in Indonesia which initially produced a very limited amount of gold. Consequently, the company began to fail. However, one of the workers at the company began to “salt” the daily core samples. As a result, Bre-X began to accumulate more investors, and more money, but ultimately collapsed after the crime surfaced.

A core sample is “salted” by adding other, more valuable, minerals to the sample – in this case, gold. Salting the core samples of this particular mine indicated a much higher quantity of gold than there actually was.

Bre-X lied about the mine’s success to attract new investors. Moreover, the company convinced investors to continue supporting their failing mine through deceit. Bre-X leveraged their fraudulent core samples to acquire more investors for the struggling company.

large mining rig

Elements of The Crime


Convicting someone of theft by false pretenses requires the prosecution to prove the elements of the crime.


Element One

The first element concerns deliberate deceit. The defendant must have known that what he or she said was false, and have had the intent to convince the other person that it was true.

“False pretenses” can include:

  1. Making a reckless statement without checking its validity or the validity of any supportive facts of the statement
  2. Withholding critical information under the circumstances
  3. Making promises without any intent to keep them


Hypothetical Example

Tammy begins to produce what she describes as a panacea, In reality, however, there is no scientific evidence to support her claims. She convinces a person suffering from cancer to purchase her chemical compound with the promise that it will cure cancer. Tammy is guilty of theft by false pretenses even if she didn’t positively know her claims were not true. She recklessly claimed that her chemical compound could cure diseases without any scientific evidence.

Element Two

The second element involves fraudulent end goals. The defendant must intend to persuade the victim to give up his or her property to the defendant.

Deception for another purpose does not qualify as an adequate element of this crime


Ryan is curious about human behavior. He decides to pretend to be Jesus Christ and to go about announcing the Second Coming – simply to observe people’s reactions. Eventually, this gains traction on the internet and he becomes a well-known public figure within a certain demographic. As a result, people begin to send him money with no solicitation on his part. Ryan is not guilty of theft by false pretenses because he never intended to persuade anyone that he was Christ, nor  did he request that property be given to him.


Element Three


The third element involves trust. The defendant’s lies must be believed by the victim. The victim  must have given up his or her property because of false information deliberately given by the defendant. If the victim knew the individual was lying, and then chose to give up his or her property, it is more difficult to prove a case of theft by false pretenses.


A skilled defense attorney will be able to accurately assess the victim’s motives in this situation. After examining the relationship between the  defendant and the victim, a good defense lawyer will devote adequate resources to investigating both parties. The defense attorney will accurately analyze the facts, and will be able to show that the victim did not give the property based on the defendant’s statements, but for some other reason, thus removing the fault from the defendant.

Element Four


The fourth element involves a deliberate lie. The individual must cause the victim to believe in his or her lie through some means.

The law recognizes four ways to illegally acquire trust in a theft by false pretenses case.

  1. A “false token” could be counterfeit money or some related item supporting the false pretenses.
  2. Any note or documentation of the false pretenses signed or handwritten by the defendant.
  3. Testimony from two witnesses that supports the false pretenses.
  4. Testimony from one witness, together with supporting evidence that indicates the false pretenses.


close up of a $100 bill


Fighting Theft by False Pretenses in California

Building a defense against theft by false pretenses charges can be challenging. However the prosecution has the burden of proving the defendant’s intent to deceive. The defendant may genuinely believe in what he or she said, and therefore never intended to deceive the victim. Moreover, the defendant may have misunderstood the situation and the facts surrounding it. A skilled defense attorney can introduce enough reasonable doubt to prevent the prosecution from attaining a conviction.

Another key factor of theft by false pretenses involves the victim relying on the defendant’s word and acting accordingly. If the victim fully understood the situation, the risks involved, and the defendant’s intent, then the victim did not rely on the defendant’s lie. If the victim did not rely on the defendants actions, then the defendant cannot be convicted of theft by false pretenses.

The penalties for theft by false pretenses are the same as for other forms of theft, and vary according to whether the charge is a misdemeanor or a felony. Theft of property valued at $950 or less is considered petty theft.


Penalties for Theft by False Pretenses in California


Theft of property valued  at more than $950, or of a car, a firearm, or livestock, is considered grand theft under California State Penal Code 532. Grand theft is considered a wobbler crime, meaning that the charge will be determined by the specific circumstances of the case, as well as by the defendant’s criminal history. However, the State of California will always charge any theft of a firearm or automobile as a felony.


The penalties for misdemeanor petty theft include

  1. Up to 6 months in county jail
  2. Fines of up to $1,000


The penalties for misdemeanor grand theft are:

  1. Up to 1 year in county jail
  2. Fines of up to $1,000


The penalties for felony grand theft are:

  1. 16 months to 3 years in state prison
  2. Fines of up to $10,000


man using a debit card


Understanding California Theft By False Pretenses


Those facing a charge of theft by false pretenses owe it to themselves to seek the most skilled defense attorney possible in order to fight the charges, and to find a successful outcome.


The State of California prohibits theft by false pretenses as outlined in California Penal Code 532. Theft by false pretenses can also be described as a con, or confidence trick.


The state must prove that the defendant carried out a few specific elements of the crime:

First, the defendant intentionally deceived the victim through a lie.

Second, the defendant lied in order to gain the victim’s trust and to receive property from the victim.

Third, the victim relied on the lie.

Finally, the defendant actually misrepresented himself or herself or made promises under false pretenses.


Working with an experienced legal team can make all the difference, both in a catastrophe and in a minor inconvenience. The defendant may have had genuinely good intent. Determining what other people are thinking, or thought, is not possible due to the current limitations of science and technology. The prosecution must prove intent to deceive. Since everyone makes mistakes, and since circumstances may change dynamically, proving intent to deceive is more challenging than it may appear at first glance.

Kyle Gaffney
Kyle Gaffney
Kyle Gaffney moved to Los Angeles from Bozeman, Montana. He studied Music Production and Engineering at Berklee College of Music, and worked at a recording studio for 4 years. In the summer of 2017 he self-propelled across the United States with Darren Kavinoky, and discovered an untapped interest in writing in the process. Kyle has always had a deep love United States Constitution and the rights and Liberties it grants American citizens, but also recognizes how complicated it can be. Contributing to the Kavinoky Law Firm is an opportunity he is incredibly grateful for to simplify, what might seem like complicated, legal instructions into terms everyone can understand and learn from.