Theft by Deception: Laws & Legal Definition

There are many types of theft, each defined according to different federal- and state-based categories. For instance, theft where the value is small might be categorized as a lesser crime, misdemeanor, or petty theft. However, once the value becomes serious, or involves a large amount of money, it is typically classified as grand theft, a felony, or grand larceny. 

Depending on the way in which the theft took place, charges beyond the theft itself can be added. If, for example, you stole a vehicle at gunpoint, then you might face charges not just of grand theft auto (for the value of goods stolen, and the car) but for armed robbery or theft with a deadly weapon (for perpetrating the theft with a gun). 

There is, however, another category which involves the intent underlying the theft and that is theft by deception. 

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What is theft by deception?

Theft by deception is generally defined as a misdemeanor crime where someone is convicted of unlawfully taking something that belongs to someone else by intentionally deceiving them, usually with deceptive words or a deceptive act. The language used to define theft by deception differs by state, but typically includes something to the effect of creating a false impression.

Defining theft by deception

While the definition varies by state, almost all states include three basic elements:

  1. Someone falsely creates or reinforces a false impression. 
  2. Someone tries to stop another from acquiring information, which would fix a false impression. 
  3. Someone fails to correct a false impression and makes money from that false impression. 

All of these cases must involve some sort of gain or some sort of property exchange. Here, the term “property” can include physical property, like a car or tools, or money. 

The only exception to this is a situation where no money or property was exchanged or where someone exaggerated the quality or quantity of goods to attract buyers, legally referred to as “sales puffing”. 

Example definitions of theft by deception: 

  • In Pennsylvania Title 18 defines theft by deception as an intentional act to “create or reinforce a false impression, including false impressions as to law, value, intention or other state of mind… [or attempts to prevent] another from acquiring information which would affect his judgment of a transaction…[or failure to] correct a false impression which the deceiver previously created or reinforced, or which the deceiver knows to be influencing another to whom he stands in a fiduciary or confidential relationship.” 
  • In Nebraska Statute 28-512 defines theft by deception as situations where someone recreates or reinforces a false impression “as to law, value, intention, or other state of mind. The law outlines the same three situations described in Pennsylvania but also includes use of “a credit card, charge plate, or any other instrument which purports to evidence an undertaking to pay for property or services delivered or rendered to or upon the order of a designated person or bearer (a) where such instrument has been stolen, forged, revoked, or canceled, or where for any other reason its use by the actor is unauthorized, or (b) where the actor does not have the intention and ability to meet all obligations to the issuer arising out of his use of the instrument.”
  • In Maine, Title 17 places theft by deception under the same category as petty theft. It echoes the same three key elements outlined by Pennsylvania. However, their laws also include the element of transferring property without disclosing that someone else has an interest in that property and preventing someone from obtaining information relating to a property. 
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What are some examples of theft by deception?

Theft by deception examples vary by state. Consider, first, the exceptions listed above. Under these exceptions, if a salesman were to tell potential customers that his company has the “best service in town” and that turned out to be false, this is not theft by deception. However, there are many other examples that do qualify. 

For example: 

Situation 1: A man in Nebraska has a credit card. The credit card company just gave him an upper limit of $15,000, but he knows that he could not possibly pay that off. His debt of credit card charges rises to $1,400. One day he makes an order for services for home repairs that cost $6,000 and charges it to his credit card knowing that he will not pay it off and that in the event he goes to collections, he won’t have money to repay his debt. This is an example of theft by deception, so long as the credit card company could prove that he used the credit card without any intention of repaying it or being able to meet his obligations at a later date. 

Situation 2: In Maine, a woman is selling a home. There are many problems with the home and she goes out of her way to prevent buyers from getting true information about the actual state of the property. So, when the buyers end up buying the house, they pay too much for its true value and end up with problems the seller was legally supposed to disclose but did not. This is defined as theft by deception as the seller purposely deceived the buyer as to the property’s quality.

Situation 3: A man in Pennsylvania pretends he has a successful contracting business after a potential client mistakes him for the owner of a popular contracting business in town as the two look very similar. He does nothing to correct the client and then gives her fake contact information so that she won’t search online for his true information. He then charges her a 50% down payment for contracting work on her house which he never intends to do. This is another example of theft by deception whereby the man not only did nothing to correct the incorrect information, but went out of his way to prevent the potential client from determining the truth, AND took money on false pretenses. These acts meet the three main criteria for theft by deception in almost all states. 

Now, let’s look at Situation 3 again, but place both the false contractor and client in Maine. If the man had been mistakenly identified as the owner of the successful contracting company, and he did not take money from the client, then it would not qualify as theft by deception. In Maine, this situation only qualifies as theft by deception when there is an exchange of property or money that one is not legally meant to have. 

Conceptual triangular hazard road sign against a stormy sky saying fraud alert

What are the penalties for theft by deception?

Given that theft by deception is still considered theft, most states will determine penalties based on the amount of money or value of property stolen. 

Theft by deception charges

Charges and punishments for theft by deception vary by state. These are typically based on the criminal history of the perpetrator, especially any criminal history relating to theft by deception, and the amount stolen. Much like other crimes, the elements of the theft will also play a role in which charges are levied, such as use of a weapon or fake identification. 

Theft by deception punishments

The punishments assigned go hand-in-hand with the charges levied. The greater the value stolen, the worse the charges, and the more severe the punishment. 

In the state of Pennsylvania:

  • Stealing money or property up to $2,000  is a misdemeanor and can include up to 1 to 5 years in jail and fines up to $10,000, depending on the amount stolen.
  • Stealing money or property more than $2,000 is a felony and can include up to 7 years in prison and fines up to $15,000.

In another example, if you are charged with theft by deception in Maine, the property value also plays a role. For example:

  • Stealing money or property up to $1,000 is a misdemeanor and can earn up to 1 years in jail and fines up to $2,000, depending on the amount stolen.
  • Stealing money or property between $1,000-$10,000 is a felony and can earn up to 5 years in jail and fines up to $5,000.
  • Stealing more than $10,000 is a felony with up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $20,000*.

*In Maine, however, there are exceptions to this. If you are charged as a thief who takes a firearm or an explosive, then no matter the value it is automatically a felony charge of the highest degree. 

Note: In almost every state, if you are convicted more than once, that factor will typically enhance the charges in court. So, if you have already been convicted of a lesser misdemeanor and you are charged with another crime, the penalty will likely move up a class, regardless of monetary value.

How can you prove theft by deception?

In order to prove theft by deception, you should consider working with a lawyer. These situations necessitate proof that there was intent to deceive which, based on the situation of the theft, might be very challenging to prove. This is especially true in the example of the credit card charges and the Nebraska man cited above. 

Conversely, if you are involved in a case where the impression is that of theft by deception, a good criminal defense lawyer can create an available legal defense for you. 


Overall, theft by deception involves any situation where someone knowingly and intentionally deceived another to obtain property or money that was not theirs. If you or someone you know is facing charges for this type of theft or was the victim of this type of theft, it is best to work with a qualified attorney.

Article by Megan Thompson

Megan Thompson is a legal writer at Lawrina. Megan writes about different law practice areas, legal innovations, and shares her knowledge about her legal practice. As a graduate of the American University's Washington College of Law she is an expert of law in Lawrina's team and has a slight editing touch to all content that is published on the website.

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