It was Oscar Wilde who said: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." But when someone attempts to pass off that imitation as the real thing, it could be a crime.
Art is the glamorized subject of forgery crimes on television, but the crime of forgery is usually much more mundane. It can be as simple as signing someone else's name on a check. The law defines forgery as the making of a fake document, the modification of an existing document, or the unauthorized signing of a signature.
Read ahead to learn more about various types of forgery and its increasingly common corollary crime: identity theft. This article includes information about penalties for the crime of forgery and aggravated forgery. It also provides examples of high-profile forgery cases.
Elements of Forgery
Forgery begins with a state of mind. Sketching a famous work of art is not a crime. Works of art can be copied or replicated without any crime being committed — until someone attempts to sell that copy and represents it as an original.
When it comes to putting a name on a blank check, most people would expect that it is always illegal to sign someone else's name. But if the checking account owner asked another person to fill in the fields of their blank check (say, an elderly relative with a shaky hand) and then cash it, that would not constitute forgery. The signer must have the intent to defraud or deceive the account owner or the bank. Lacking deception, the "forged document" is legal.
With deceptive intent, a forger creates a false document, signature, or imitation of something valuable (sometimes called a "false instrument"). Legal contracts, historical papers, art objects, diplomas, licenses, legal certificates, prescriptions, bills of lading or shipping orders, and ID cards are frequent targets of forgery.
The most common form of forgery is signing someone else's name on a check. Altering or amending an existing document is also punishable as a forgery. That includes changing the name of the payee on a check or altering the amount.
Forgery can also involve the sophisticated creation of fake or fraudulent documents. Photocopying someone's signature and then placing it on a document without their knowledge or consent is one example.
Sometimes special printers, inks, and paper stocks are necessary to produce convincing fakes. Possession of these items with the intent to use them to deceive someone may be punishable as a crime.
Some states prosecute this white-collar crime under their statutes for fraud or larceny. In some jurisdictions, writing a bad check from one's own account is also forgery because the intent was to deceive the receiver of the check.
Federal and State Law Examples
Forgery offenses exist in both federal and state law. Federal forgery laws include counterfeiting and the altering of all types of documents related to the federal government. This may include military, treasury, and postal documents. It also includes documents that can affect interstate commerce such as contracts, bonds, and securities.
Federal forgery crimes can carry substantial penalties. For example, a defendant in Florida pleaded guilty in 2023 to possessing a fictitious government document. She used a counterfeit check that appeared to have been issued through the U.S. Treasury to buy a car. That class B felony could mean up to 25 years in prison.
Federal law also provides the potential for more prison time when a criminal knowingly "transfers, possesses, or uses" a form of identification for someone else without their authority as part of certain felony crimes. A conviction for aggravated identity theft carries a consecutive prison sentence of two years on top of the underlying offense.
In light of confusion before the federal appellate courts on how to interpret the statute, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case in 2023 in which the underlying crime was health care fraud. The defendant's conviction for health care fraud provided for discretionary sentencing. The conviction for aggravated identity theft required a two-year prison term.
The court clarified that a defendant uses another person's form of identity in violation of the aggravated identity theft law when the use is "in relation to" the underlying offense and "at the crux" of what makes the conduct criminal. Since the focus of the crime involved overbilling Medicaid and not identity theft, the court vacated the conviction for aggravated identity theft and remanded the case.
State laws may vary in title and degree. Yet they often seek to prohibit similar conduct related to forgery and falsifying documents.
In New York state, forgery laws break down into three categories. First-degree forgery, detailed in New York Penal Code 170.15, involves falsified or fraudulent money, stamps, securities, or other valuable government-issued documents. Forged documents related to stock certificates, bonds, and other financial offerings from companies or organizations also fall under the first-degree offense. If convicted of this class C felony, an offender can face up to 15 years in state prison.
A second-degree forgery offense occurs when the forged document relates to real estate deeds, wills, codicils, contracts, assignments, commercial paperwork, or credit cards. It also covers forgeries of public records, government instruments, and drug prescriptions. Second-degree forgery is a class D felony. A conviction could mean up to seven years' prison time.
A third-degree forgery offense involves any other forged document. Offenders under this category can face misdemeanor charges that carry up to one year of jail time.
In some states, penalties for forgery tend to increase based on the dollar value of the deceptive act. State statutes authorize felony charges for forgeries for dollar amounts over $500 or $1,000. Felony forgery crimes may lead to prison time. Misdemeanor forgery charges can result in local jail time. Sentences for forgery may also include restitution for the victims of the deception.
In Minnesota, for example, a forgery conviction for dishonored checks with a dollar value of less than $250 would be a misdemeanor. It could result in 90 days in jail and a fine of $1,000. A similar forgery conviction for an amount over $500 is a felony. It may result in up to five years in prison and $10,000 in fines.
In Minnesota, if the forged instrument is a public record, a bank record, an official corporate seal, or any kind of document that confers legal rights and privileges (like a driver's license), it is charged as an aggravated forgery. That is a felony crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $20,000.
Forgery and Identity Theft
Identity theft is a crime in which someone uses another person's personal information fraudulently or deceptively, typically for economic gain. Social Security numbers, credit history, credit card numbers and authorization codes, banking PINs, and other similar information are often acquired through:
- Physically lost or stolen mail or wallets
- Searching through trash for statements
- "Phishing" for information using email
- "Skimming" information from an ATM or card reader using a device
- Unsecured websites or unsecured Wi-Fi used in public places
- Illegally accessing personnel records or customer records while on the job
A newer form of identity theft is the use of "synthetic accounts." A criminal creates a credit card account using a real Social Security number but a fake name. The perpetrator maxes out the account and then abandons it. This combination of real and fake information was a common strategy used to defraud the U.S. government's Paycheck Protection Program.
Historically, states have treated identity theft as false impersonation, forgery, or theft by deception. Most states have since enacted specific identity theft and cybercrime laws. Congress created a federal offense of identity theft in 1998. Federal statutes make it a crime to misuse another person's identifying information — whether personal or financial.
Examples of Forgery and Identity Theft Crimes
In the 1960s and '70s, infamous criminal forger Frank Abagnale allegedly stole millions of dollars using forged personal and payroll checks. Abagnale has said that after he served five years in prison, the FBI recruited him to help catch fraudsters like himself. He later became the subject of the 2002 film "Catch Me If You Can," portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio. While doubts have emerged about many of the details of his past, Abagnale parlayed it into a career offering advice on fraud prevention.
Abagnale told an interviewer for AARP that it is a thousand times easier to pass bad checks and adopt false identities in the internet era. He advised readers to shred everything, use a credit monitoring service that will notify you if someone is trying to use your credit, and not write many checks. It can be all too easy to create bogus checks to draw from someone else's account.
On a grand scale, German forger Wolfgang Beltracchi created artworks that he claimed were painted by Picasso and other European masters. He obtained millions of euros for hundreds of forgeries. In 2011, Beltracchi was found guilty of criminal forgery and sentenced to six years in prison. The court ordered him to pay millions in restitution. He served three years.
Perhaps the world's most famous case of literary forgery took place in 1983 with the "discovery" of the alleged "Hitler Diaries." The false writing supposedly contained passages written by Adolf Hitler between 1932 and 1945. The diaries were actually written by a forger named Konrad Kujau. He sold his work to a journalist, who then sold it to a German magazine for 9.3 million Deutsche marks, then the equivalent of about $3.6 million. After discovery and conviction, Kujau served four years in prison.
Forgery intersects with the lucrative drug trade as well. Drug crime rings have forged prescriptions to get access to powerful medications. In 2016, authorities arrested three people in Washington state in connection with a pharmacy forgery ring. They forged prescriptions using false profiles they had created for real physicians.
At least one of the conspirators had gained unauthorized access to an online prescription delivery system. This allowed them to send digital prescriptions in the doctors' names.
Consequences of Forgery Convictions
A forgery conviction can have collateral consequences outside a criminal sentence. Felony convictions are likely to have an impact on future employment opportunities and the ability to obtain housing. Employers may run credit reports or background checks when making hiring decisions. Likewise, lenders and landlords may take such actions to make sure a client or tenant can pay their bills.
When a person's criminal record contains a conviction for forgery or other crimes involving dishonesty, it can reflect on any testimony they offer in a future legal proceeding. Forgery is a crime that involves dishonesty or false statements. Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, an attorney can use the conviction to impeach the credibility of the witness. It does not matter whether the conviction was a misdemeanor or a felony.
Facing Forgery Charges? You'll Need a Criminal Defense Lawyer
If you are facing criminal charges for forgery or a related criminal case, you will need a strong advocate to protect your rights in a court of criminal law. Consider seeking legal representation from an experienced criminal defense attorney near you.