Fraud is a broad term that refers to acts intended to swindle someone. In essence, it's the use of intentional deception for monetary or personal gain.
Thousands of people each year fall victim to it. Fraud always includes a false statement, misrepresentation or deceitful conduct. The purpose is to gain something of value, usually money, by misleading or deceiving someone into believing something that the perpetrator knows to be false.
What the Law Says About Fraud
Fraud is covered by both criminal and civil laws. The most obvious difference has to do with who files the legal case. Only government prosecutors can bring criminal charges, but a victim of fraud can file a civil lawsuit. Sometimes a person who commits fraud is both criminally prosecuted and sued in a civil action.
In the criminal context, fraud must be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt." If convicted of the crime, a defendant may be sentenced to jail or probation and fines.
In private civil lawsuits, the standard of proof is lower and punishment is often restitution (i.e., return of the victim's money) and monetary damages. When regulators such as the Federal Trade Commission or Securities and Exchange Commission file civil lawsuits against unscrupulous businesses, they frequently seek injunctions, restitution to victims and monetary penalties.
While the exact wording of fraud laws varies, the main elements usually are:
Types of Fraud
Common varieties of fraud offenses include:
Warnings Signs of Fraud -- What to Look Out For
Of course, be wary if anyone unfamiliar asks for the digits of your social security number or previous address, because that can be used for identity theft. Don't click on hyperlinks in an email message unless you're sure you know who sent it. Be alert if you lose your credit or debit card and suspect that it might be stolen or misused. Any time you receive promises from an unknown person or company that seem "too good to be true," that's a potential warning sign of a hidden scam.
The Experience of Being Defrauded
Any person, business or entity can be targeted by fraud. Often, victims experience a range of emotions, including anger and a sense of betrayal, shame or guilt, and frustration or anxiety over the loss of money or something else of value. Some despondent victims are reluctant to report the crime because they're embarrassed and incorrectly blame themselves for what happened. The con artist will continue to prey on others if they are silent.
Get Legal Help with Your Fraud Law Questions
If you feel you've been defrauded, be sure to speak with a consumer protection lawyer who is familiar with the fraud laws in your state. Likewise, if you've been accused of the crime of fraud, reach out to a criminal defense attorney near you to protect your legal rights.