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The creation of a false written document or alteration of a genuine one, with the intent to defraud.

Forgery consists of filling in blanks on a document containing a genuine signature, or materially altering or erasing an existing instrument. An underlying intent to defraud, based on knowledge of the false nature of the instrument, must accompany the act. Instruments of forgery may include bills of exchange, bills of lading, promissory notes, checks, bonds, receipts, orders for money or goods, mortgages, discharges of mortgages, deeds, public records, account books, and certain kinds of tickets or passes for transportation or events. Statutes define forgery as a felony. Punishment generally consists of a fine or imprisonment, or both. Methods of forgery include handwriting, printing, engraving, and typewriting. The related crime of uttering a forged document occurs when an inauthentic writing is intentionally offered as genuine. Some modern statutes include this crime with forgery.

Perhaps the most famous case of forgery in the twentieth century took place in 1983 with the "discovery" of the Hitler diaries. The diaries supposedly contained passages written by German dictator Adolf Hitler between 1932 and 1945. Gerd Heidemann, a German reporter for Stern magazine, had claimed the writings as genuine and sold them. He had obtained them from Konrad Kujau, a Stuttgart dealer in military memorabilia and documents. The magazines Newsweek and Paris Match, along with other media, paid more than $5 million for the documents. Major news sources around the world quickly published major stories detailing the historical information that the diaries allegedly contained. Investigative experts from around the world later conducted forensic examinations on the diaries and found the documents to be fake. Kujau then admitted forging the diaries, and news sources immediately retracted their coverage. Both Kujau and Heidemann were sentenced to four and a half years in a German prison—but not before Kujau embarrassed the media even further by forging Hitler autographs for spectators at his circuslike trial.

In the United States, the Mormon Bible forgeries resulted in more extreme consequences. Beginning in the early 1980s, Mark Hofmann, a disillusioned Salt Lake City Mormon and part-time dealer in historical documents, forged documents of major importance to Mormon history. He sold most of the creations to the Mormon Church and to others interested in Mormon religious history. Hofmann reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars from his Fraud. His boldest forgery, the White Salamander letter, cast doubt on the credibility of the Mormon Church's founder, Joseph Smith. In this letter, Hofmann portrayed Smith as a dabbler in folk magic and the occult, which greatly distressed the Mormon community. When individuals within Hofmann's ring of buyers raised doubts about the authenticity of one of his later creations, Hofmann murdered one buyer and the spouse of another before their suspicions became public.

Hofmann was charged with murder and fraud. Prosecutors relied on Expert Testimony regarding the authenticity of the documents. When the experts declared that the documents were worthless, Hofmann's attorneys offered to plea bargain on the counts of forgery and second-degree murder. The prosecution agreed to negotiate the charges to avoid an embarrassing trial for the Mormon Church. Hofmann pleaded guilty to murder. In January 1988, the Utah Board of Pardons sentenced Hofmann to life in prison without Parole.

Most forgeries are less sensational than those in the Hitler diaries and Mormon Bible cases. Common forgery usually involves manufacturing or tampering with documents for economic gain. The intent to defraud remains essential.

Counterfeiting, often associated with forgery, is a separate category of fraud involving the manufacture, alteration, or distribution of a product that is of lesser value than the genuine product.

Further readings

Bowman, Frank O., III. 2001. "The 2001 Federal Economic Crime Sentencing Reforms: An Analysis and Legislative History." Indiana Law Review 35 (winter): 5–101.

Bozeman, Pat. 1990. Forged Documents. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Books.

Brayer, Ruth. 2000. Detecting Forgery in Fraud Investigations: The Insider's Guide. Alexandria, Va.: ASIS International.

Nickell, Joe. 1996. Detecting Forgery: Forensic Investigation of Documents. Lexington, Ky.: Univ. Press of Kentucky.

Perez, Jacob. 1992. Forgery and Fraud-Related Offenses in Six States, 1983–1988. Justice Department. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Rendell, Kenneth W. 1994. Forging History. Norman, Okla., and London: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

Treasury Department. U.S. Secret Service. 1991. Counterfeiting and Forgery. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


n. 1) the crime of creating a false document, altering a document, or writing a false signature for the illegal benefit of the person making the forgery. This includes improperly filling in a blank document, like a automobile purchase contract, over a buyer's signature, with the terms different from those agreed. It does not include such innocent representation as a staff member autographing photos of politicians or movie stars. While similar to forgery, counterfeiting refers to the creation of phoney money, stock certificates, or bonds which are negotiable for cash. 2) a document or signature falsely created or altered. (See: forger, counterfeit, fraud)

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.


an offence in English law of making a false instrument so that it may be accepted as genuine. Where a signature on a bill of exchange has been forged or placed on the bill without the authority of the person whose signature it purports to be, such signature is wholly inoperative, so that no right to retain the bill or to give a discharge therefor or to enforce payment against any party to the bill can be acquired through or under the signature unless the party against whom it is sought to retain or enforce payment is precluded from setting up the forgery or want of authority as a defence. In the criminal law of Scotland, it is not in itself a crime. See UTTERING.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006
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