Forgery is the false making or altering of a legally significant instrument with the intent to defraud. The key variable in this definition is what each jurisdiction considers legally significant. The most common type of instrument is a check. In addition, commercial instruments such as bills of lading, promissory notes and various types of securities are often forged. A person who commits forgery usually writes a false signature, but in some cases other parts of a document are altered or completed. To be convicted of forgery, the prosecution must show that the defendant had intent to defraud when he or she presented a forged document for payment.
State criminal codes rank forgery as a felony-level offense. It is generally punished more severely than other non-violent theft crimes because of the negative effects forged instruments have on the commercial system. Banks will not pay merchants who accept forged checks when they present the checks for payment. Because many forgeries go unsolved, the impact on businesses can be substantial. In addition, the person whose checks have been stolen and forged suffers from the crime even though he or she is not financially liable. Therefore, when a person is convicted of forgery, the criminal sentence will include restitution.
The crime of uttering a forged instrument is also a crime of forgery. The crime consists of the defendant negotiating or attempting to negotiate an instrument he or she knows to be false. Therefore, a defendant who forges a check and then presents it to a merchant has committed two crimes, forgery and uttering the forged instrument. Because few jurisdictions have petty forgery statutes, a person who forges and cashes ten checks can be convicted of 20 felonies. Under sentencing guidelines, the number of convictions can increase the criminal sanctions.
Though forgery is usually confined to checks and other types of commercial paper, there have been numerous cases of forgery involving purported genuine “lost” documents. For example, in 1983 it was announced that the diaries of Adolph Hitler had been discovered. The persons who claimed to have found them received millions of dollars for the publication rights and the diaries were published around the world. However, experts later examined the diaries and found the documents to be forgeries. The parties responsible for the forgery were sentenced to prison terms for their fraudulent scheme.
The sale of forged historical documents is not unusual. Collectors are eager to buy the letters and signatures of famous people and large sums can be spent on acquiring rarities. Though experts in the particular field are available to authenticate documents, some collectors are gullible and do not take precautions. However, sometime even experts are fooled. For example, in the early 1980s a dealer passed off forgeries as authentic historical documents that dealt with the Mormon Church. The documents, which were purchased by the Mormon Church and collectors, were seemingly “lost” items that seemed to call for a reevaluation of church history and church leadership. One document was so heretical that several buyers questioned its legitimacy. The dealer responded by murdering one buyer and the spouse of another in an attempt to silence the controversy.
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