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 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. The 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, that is, 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 the 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"). Documents that are frequent objects of forgery include legal contracts, historical papers, art objects, diplomas, licenses, legal certificates, prescriptions, bills of lading or shipping orders, and identification cards.
The most common form of forgery is signing someone else's name to a check. Altering or amending an existing document is also punishable as a forgery. That would include changing the name of the payee on a check or altering the amount.
Forgery can also involve the sophisticated creation of fake or fraudulent written instruments. Photocopying a person'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 can be punishable as a crime.
Some states punish this white-collar crime under their statutes for fraud or larceny. In some jurisdictions, writing a bad check from one's own account is considered a forgery because the intent was to deceive the receiver of the check.
Penalties for Forgery
Penalties for forgery tend to increase based on the dollar value of the deceptive act. State statutes often categorize forgeries as felonies for dollar amounts over $500 or $1,000. Sentences for forgery routinely include restitution for the victims of the deception.
In Minnesota, for example, a forgery conviction with a dollar value of less than $250 would be charged as a misdemeanor and could result in 90 days in jail and a fine of $1,000. A forgery conviction for an amount over $500 can 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, etc., are often acquired through:
- Physically lost or stolen mail and wallets
- Searching through the trash for statements
- "Phishing" for information using email
- "Skimming" information from an ATM using a device
- Unsecured websites or unsecured WIFI used in public places
- Illegally accessing personnel records or customer records while on the job
A new form of identity theft is the use of "synthetic accounts." A credit card account is created 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 now enacted specific identity theft and cybercrime laws. Congress created a federal offense of identity theft in 1998. These laws make it a crime to misuse another person's identifying information — whether personal or financial.
Examples of Forgery and Identity Theft Crimes
Fifty years ago, infamous criminal forger Frank Abagnale stole millions of dollars using forged personal and payroll checks. After serving five years in prison, he was recruited to help the FBI catch fraudsters like himself. He later became the subject of Ron Howard's film "Catch Me If You Can."
Abagnale told an interviewer for AARP that it is a thousand times easier to pass bad checks and adopt false identities today than when he began his life of crime. He advised readers to a) shred everything, b) use a credit monitoring service that will notify you if someone is trying to use your credit, and c) don't write many checks. It's 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 was paid millions of euros for hundreds of forgeries. In 2011, Beltracchi was found guilty of forgery and was sentenced to six years in prison, and ordered 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 for $2.5 million Deutsche Marks. The journalist then sold it to a magazine for $9.3 million. Kujau was sentenced to 4 years in prison when the forgery was discovered.
Forgery intersects with the lucrative drug trade when crime rings forge prescriptions to get legal access to prescription drugs. In 2016, three people in Washington State were arrested 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, which allowed them to send digital prescriptions in the doctors' names.
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