What Is Forgery?

Generally, it is falsifying a signature, document, or object

Counterfeiting money
Image Source / Getty Images

Forgery refers to faking a signature without permission, making a false document or another object, or changing an existing document or another object without authorization. The most common form of forgery is signing someone else's name to a check, but objects, data, and documents can also be forged. The same is true of legal contracts, historical papers, art objects, diplomas, licenses, certificates, and identification cards.​

Currency and consumer goods can also be forged, but that crime is usually referred to as counterfeiting.

False Writing

To qualify as forgery, the writing must have legal significance and be false. Legal significance includes:

  • Government-issued documents such as driver's licenses, passports, and state identification cards. 
  • Transactional documents such as deeds, grants, and receipts.
  • Financial instruments such as money, checks, and stock certificates.
  • Other documents such as wills, medical prescriptions, tokens, and works of art.

Passing Forged Material

Under common law, forgery originally was limited to making, altering, or falsifying writing. Modern law includes passing or using a forged document with the knowledge that it is forged and the intent to defraud. The legal term for passing a known forgery is uttering.

For example, people who use falsified driver's licenses to fake their age and buy alcohol would be guilty of uttering a forged instrument, even though they did not make the fake licenses.

The elements of the crime of uttering are:

  • Putting into circulation a document or an object that involves forgery.
  • Intending to defraud.
  • Knowing that the document or object is a forgery. .

The most common types of forgery involve signatures, prescriptions, and art:

Signature Forgery

Signature forgery is the act of falsely replicating another person's signature. The signature can be on a driver's license, a deed, a will, a check, or another document.

Placing a signature on a document implies a person's intent to agree with circumstances provided by that document. Another source of identification, such as a fingerprint, doesn't indicate intent; a fingerprint could be obtained from a person who is unconscious, for example.

Prescription Forgery

Prescription forgery means altering an existing prescription, forging a doctor's signature, or creating the prescription in its entirety to get medication for personal use or profit.

Many people commit this crime because they are addicted to prescription drugs. The most frequently abused prescription drugs according to the law enforcement agencies are Valium (diazepam) Vicodin (hydrocodone), Xanax (alprazolam), OxyContin (oxycodone), Lorcet, Dilaudid, Percocet, Soma, Darvocet, and morphine. 

Art Forgery

Art forgery refers to making, using, and selling fake art. Often that means adding an artist's name to a work of art to make it appear to be genuine and original. Art forgery has long been a lucrative business, dating back to 2000 years ago when the Romans made copies of Greek art.

According to worldatlas.com, 20% of all artwork to date is fake. The three types of art forgers are someone who:

  • Creates a fake artwork.
  • Finds a piece of art and changes it in an effort to increase its value.
  • Sells a fake copy while suggesting it's original art.

Intent

The intent to deceive or commit fraud or larceny must exist in most jurisdictions for a crime of forgery to be charged.

For example, a person could replicate Leonardo da Vinci's famous portrait of the Mona Lisa, but unless the person attempted to sell or represent it as the original, the crime of forgery has not occurred.

If the person attempted to sell the portrait as the original "Mona Lisa," the portrait would be a forgery and the person could be charged with the crime of forgery, regardless of whether they sold the artwork.

Possessing Forged Documents

A person who possesses a forged document has not committed a crime unless the person knows the document or item is forged and uses it to defraud a person or entity.

For example, if a person received a forged check for payment of services rendered, was unaware that the check was forged, and cashed it, then a crime wasn't committed. If someone knew that the check was forged and cashed it, then that person could be held criminally liable in most states.

Penalties

The penalties for forgery differ between states. In most states, forgery is classified by degrees—first-, second-, and third-degree—or by class.

Often, first- and second-degree forgeries are felonies, and the third degree is a misdemeanor. In all states, the degree of the crime depends on what has been forged and the intent of the forgery.

For example, in Connecticut, forgery of symbols is a crime. This includes forging or possessing tokens, public transit transfers, or any other token used instead of money to purchase items or services.

Punishment for forgery of symbols is a class A misdemeanor. This is the most serious misdemeanor and is punishable by up to a year in jail and up to a $2,000 fine.

Forgery of financial or official documents is a class C or D felony and subject to up to a 10-year prison sentence and a fine up to $10,000.

All other forgery falls under a class B, C, or D misdemeanor. The punishment can be up to six months in jail and a fine up to $1,000.

The punishment increases substantially if a prior conviction is recorded.

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