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Theft by Deception Charges

UPDATED: June 19, 2018

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Theft by deception is similar to a basic theft charge, which is the unlawful taking of something that belongs to another person with the intent to deprive the owner of the property, but theft by deception requires that the individual employed some deceptive act or used deceptive words which were relied upon by the victim in making the decision to turn over their property.

Different states have various definitions of what is considered deception, but they typically include language such as “words or conduct that create a false impression.” For example, if someone makes a representation that they own a construction business and takes money from a victim to perform a job they never intended to complete, then they could be prosecuted for theft by deception. It doesn’t matter that the victim voluntarily gave the perpetrator their money, as long as the state can prove that the victim relied on a defendant’s representations.


The usual defenses in a regular theft case are that the defendant either didn't take the item at all, or that the victim willingly gave the defendant the property. The expanded theft by deception charge, which includes the deception element, also expands the defensive theories. Because deception is required, a defendant can present more evidence regarding the formation of a contract, the expectations of the parties, partial completion of any promises, and the victim’s state of mind. Many theft by deception cases are similar to a breach of contract dispute in some ways at trial because they address the same contested issues contract issues. The complexity of these issues make it very difficult for a defendant to represent themselves, and require the assistant of an attorney with experience defending criminal charges.


A theft by deception charge can range from a misdemeanor level offense up to a first degree felony offense. Before a defendant decides to go to jury trial or to take a plea bargain, they should understand the consequences of such a serious conviction.

The degree of offense is usually controlled by the value of the item stolen. For example, in Texas, the theft of a car worth $2,000 would result in a state jail felony, while a car worth $30,000 would be punished at a higher third degree level. Some states also make the theft of certain items automatic felonies.

The sentencing range for a misdemeanor theft by deception can include probation up to a year or two in jail. The range of punishment for a felony theft by deception can range from probation to twenty years or more in prison. Prosecutors are sometimes motivated to plea bargain theft by deception cases because they recognize the difficulty of “deception” elements and the need for most victims to obtain restitution. Once a defendant is sentenced to prison, their earning power decreases which reduces the opportunities for restitution payments. Any plea bargain should try to resolve all potential criminal issues.

Resolving Ancillary Charges

A defendant considering how to plea should also attempt to resolve all related pending charges. A common ancillary charge to theft by deception is securing execution of a document by deception. If a victim signs over title to a defendant based on a deceptive act, the defendant could be prosecuted for theft by deception or securing execution of document by deception. Some states authorize a defendant to be convicted of both offenses when a defendant is faced with dual charges. This practice gives the state multiple “bites at the apple.” Once a conviction is completed, a criminal conviction can also have several civil consequences.

As mentioned, many theft by deception cases tend to have civil lawsuit overtones. A plea of guilty in the criminal case could be used against a defendant is a civil suit. Alternatively, if a conviction in a criminal case orders a defendant to pay restitution, some states will authorize victims to enforce the criminal judgment as they would any other civil judgment. In states where this rule applies, a victim could attach property of the defendant in order to satisfy the obligation. Paying a huge restitution amount can sometimes be overwhelming or frustrating, thereby tempting some defendants to file for bankruptcy. Unfortunately, criminal restitution obligations are not dischargeable in a bankruptcy proceeding.

Long Term Consequences of a Conviction

From an employment perspective, a theft by deception conviction can severely limit options. Many employers will not hire a defendant with assaultive or deceptive criminal histories. The lack of employment opportunities can also frustrate a defendant’s opportunity to pay restitution. 

A defendant charged with theft by deception should not rely on their own negotiations before they resolve their charges. A theft by deception conviction can result in as many or more long-term consequences as a regular theft conviction. Consulting with an attorney to take advantage of the common desire of prosecutors to resolve these charges with probation may minimize the long term consequences of the charges and the possibility of a serious conviction.

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