The criminal offense of forgery consists of creating or changing something with the intent of passing it off as genuine, usually for financial gain or to gain something else of value. This often involves creation of false financial instruments, such as checks, or official documents. It can also include signing another person’s name to a document without his or her consent or faking the individual’s handwriting. Forging money or other currency is generally considered a separate offense, known as counterfeiting, although the word “counterfeit” may apply to the forgery of consumer goods and other items. Forgery often occurs in connection with one or more fraud offenses.
Between state and federal law, forgery of almost any type of document may be prosecuted.
Forgery of Official Documents
Any alteration or modification of an official document, such as a state-issued identification or locally issued permit, with intent to defraud, could be considered forgery. Typically, the purpose of creating a forgery is to try to pass it off as genuine in order to obtain services, money, or something else of value. It could also be intended to deprive someone else of something of value, such as if a person modifies a deed conveying real property by removing a grantee’s name or changing the terms of the conveyance. Forgery is often a key component of identity theft.
State forgery statutes prohibit unauthorized modifications, with intent to defraud, to a will, codicil, or other documents conveying anything of value to another person. In California, the offense of forgery includes forging another person’s handwriting, seal, or signature, making fraudulent changes to a wide range of documents, and falsifying court records or judgments.
Forgery of Financial Instruments and Related Documents
Federal statutes relating to forgery address money counterfeiting, postage fraud, military documents, patents, and other documents issued by or pertaining to the federal government. They also deal with documents that could affect interstate commerce, such as certain securities, bonds, and contracts.
At the state level, forgery laws address almost any fraudulent creation or alteration of a written instrument. Forgery of certain financial instruments, particularly checks, may be prosecuted as bank fraud, but many states’ statutes define forgery much more broadly. Under the criminal code in Washington, for example, the offense of forgery may involve any written or printed material that offers evidence of value, which might include a promissory note or even just an I.O.U.
Consumer goods that bear a fraudulent label, such as poor-quality clothing with a fake designer label, are commonly known as counterfeit goods. Sometimes, these goods are sold with full disclosure that they are not genuine to consumers who intend to deceive others regarding the source of the goods. The consumers’ intent in that instance is not necessarily considered criminal, but the intent of those selling the counterfeit goods is considered criminal under federal law. In fact, the federal statute prohibiting trafficking in counterfeit goods or services makes no distinction with regard to whether buyers are aware of the forgery and do not pay full price, or are not aware and believe they are paying for genuine goods.
Counterfeit laws typically look to the seller’s intent, rather than the buyer’s knowledge.
The creation and sale of forged artwork is perhaps the most expensive type of commercial forgery, in terms of losses to buyers. Collectors and others employ experts who can determine if a piece of art, such as a painting alleged to be an original work by a famous painter like Pablo Picasso or Vincent Van Gogh, is genuine or a forgery. Attempts to sell counterfeit artwork as original pieces generally fall under the federal law that prohibits the sale of counterfeit goods.