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Michael Santos

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Forgery (aka “uttering a false instrument”) is a serious criminal offense, punishable as a felony in all 50 states and the federal government.


In the United States, forgery is a federal crime as well as a crime in all 50 states. Criminal penalties for forgery include time in jail or prison, as well as fines. (Civil forgery is when a defendant appears as a defendant in civil court in a lawsuit for damages caused by the defendant’s forgery conduct.) This blog focuses on forgery as a crime rather than civil forgery lawsuits.
Forgery is a type of fraud. To deter would-be forgery offenders, the federal government doles out swift and harsh penalties. Again, forgery is a serious crime, and forgery punishment includes incarceration.

What is a Forgery?

The crime of forgery is a fraud. What kind of crime is forgery? Forgery is a felony. Types of forgery include counterfeiting money, signing fraudulent checks, or altering documents. Forgery punishment is harsh. Under state and federal law, people go to jail or prison for forgery every day.

Types of Forgery

Some of the most common types of forgery include:

  • Checks
    • Forging checks is one of the most common types of forgery, even in this day and age. However, in many cases of forging checks, people commit additional crimes, including cybercrimes.
  • Government Documents
    • Believe it or not, people forge or alter government documents including, for example, tax returns.
  • Records of Personal Accomplishments
    • People forge records of their university degrees, high school diplomas, SAT and ACT scores, sports achievements, and other personal accomplishments, in order to get a job or promotion. This type of forgery is prosecuted as fraud and other federal crimes. Operation Varsity Blues, in which parents allegedly paid a consultant to create fake athletic profiles and alter college entrance examination scores, is a recent example of this type of forgery and fraud. Click here for an article by Justin Paperny discussing Operation Varsity Blues: Operation Varsity Blues Article & Netflix Documentary.
  • Art
    • Although art forgery today is digital in many cases, forging art the old fashion way still pops up. As with other types of forgeries, federal prosecutors will often charge people with related cybercrimes. Art forgery can also include falsifying literary works, musical works, and the like. Due to their nature, art forgeries make significant headlines.
  • Real Estate Deeds
    • This type of fraud often involves initially forging a property owner’s signature and using the fake signature to acquire the property’s title and other property documents.
  • Financial Documents Invoices, Bank Statements
    • Relates to forging any type of document associated with financial transactions and affecting people’s rights under the law.
  • Currency
    • When the subject of forgery is paper money or currency, it is counterfeiting.
  • Literary forgery
    • Falsifying works of literature would fall in this category, for example. Also, selling or attempting to sell inauthentic works of literature as real.

Forgery Punishment

As a type of fraud, forgery punishment can look similar to punishment for other types of fraud. Generally, the federal government aggressively prosecutes fraud to deter others and recover money for the victims of the crime. 

People often ask, “can you go to jail for forging a signature?” implying that forging a signature might be a minor offense not warranting jail, but it is not. Forging a signature is a crime, no matter how innocent or routine it may appear. Under federal law, the consequences for forging a signature can be quite severe, and people can go to jail for forging a signature

Is there a minimum sentence for forgery? Criminal statutes do not generally speak in terms of minimum prison sentences except for crimes that have mandatory minimums. There is no mandatory minimum or a minimum sentence for forgery. The federal sentencing guidelines help judges determine the appropriate sentence in a federal case, and most statutes set forth maximum prison sentences instead of minimums.

In any case, forging a signature is serious. People can go to jail for forging a signature because any dishonest act done to obtain a gain, cause a loss, or influence the exercise of a public duty or function is a crime that carries harsh penalties, including prison or jail. Therefore, the punishment for signature forgery can be up to 10 years in prison. Signature forgery is not a slap on the wrist type of fraud; no one should take the potential punishment for signature forgery lightly.

The loss amount to the victim, or the amount of money the defendant gained due to the forgery, is an important factor when determining the forgery punishment a person will face. Generally, the higher the loss amount, the stiffer the penalties. Forgery punishment includes time in prison, restitution, assets seizure, and forfeiture. 

In the federal system, punishment for forgery, counterfeiting, or altering documents and other instruments can also vary based on the types of documents altered. Altering or forging government documents is particularly egregious in the eyes of prosecutors. Forgery punishment is up to 10 years in prison, for example, when a person forges a patent document, whereas forgery punishment is up to 5 years for forging postage stamps. 

The potential prison punishment is worse under the Federal Crime of Counterfeiting Money, 18 US Code Section 471. This anti-counterfeiting law states that whoever, with intent to defraud, falsely makes, forges, counterfeits, or alters any obligation or security of the United States can be imprisoned for up to 20 years.

At the state level, forgery punishment varies by state, and people under investigation or state charges for forgery should consult with legal counsel experienced in their particular state. In most states, a person convicted of misdemeanor forgery faces a jail sentence of at least one year. A person convicted for felony forgery faces more than one year in state prison. Misdemeanor forgery is punished more leniently than felony forgery. 

Sentencing judges consider all relevant factors in determining the most appropriate forgery punishment in a given case. 

For example, in states like Oregon, forgery punishment ranges from probation and community service (if it is a misdemeanor forgery) to prison time of 5 years and a $125,000 fine (if it is a felony forgery). In other states like Minnesota, penalties for check forgery vary based on the amount of money involved. Forging checks of $250 or less is punishable by up to one year in jail and a $3,000 fine (akin to a misdemeanor). Forging checks that exceed $250 is punishable by up to 5 years in state prison and a $10,000 fine.

At the time of sentencing, judges in many states also consider the type of documents forged. In states like New York, a forgery is classified as a first-degree forgery when the forged instrument is currency, securities, stocks, or bonds. Second-degree forgery involves deeds, government-issued documents, public records, or medical prescriptions, and third-degree forgery involves any other types of documents. Both first and second-degree forgeries are felonies, while third-degree forgery is a misdemeanor.

 When people ask, “what is forgery in the first degree?” they are typically alluding to New York state’s classification of forgery or to other states with similar statutes. 

Finally, another example is the state of Illinois. In Illinois, a person is guilty of forgery if they: 

  • make a false official document with the intent to deceive another person present or issue a document knowing it is fake;
  • possess an altered document with the intent to use it to defraud someone;
  • use another person’s digital signature; or
  • use another person’s signature device, such as a code, PIN, or private key, to create an electronic signature of that person.

In Illinois, forgery is punishable as a misdemeanor or a felony. For example, forging an academic degree or a coin can bring misdemeanor charges, which are punished by up to 1 year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.

Forging a Universal Price Code can bring fourth-degree felony charges, which are punished by up to 3 years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000.

Most often, in Illinois, forgery is charged as a third-degree felony. If convicted, a person could be punished by up to 5 years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000.

*PRO-TIP: Prison Professors, an Earning Freedom company, regularly helps people impacted by the criminal justice system, including people facing sentencing hearings. Click here for a video on how a person can improve their outcomes when facing a criminal sentencing hearing: 

How to Improve Sentencing Outcomes.

What Is The Crime of Forgery? 

To answer the question of what constitutes the crime of forgery, it is helpful to focus on what a prosecutor must show to win a forgery criminal conviction. 

Prosecutors have to show the following elements to prove their forgery case against a defendant: 

  1. Making, Altering, Using, or Possessing
    • Prosecutors must first answer did the defendant “make, alter, use, or possess a false writing?” Making a false written document from scratch or altering an existing document in a material way is illegal. Moreover, using or possessing false documents can be grounds for forgery prosecution.What is a material alteration? One example people ask a lot about is forging another person’s signature, and that is a material alteration because it misrepresents the person’s identity who signed the document. Deleting, adding, or changing significant portions of documents may also be “material” alterations if these changes affect the legal rights or obligations represented in the documents. 

      *Pro-Tip: Some states refer to forgery as “uttering a forged instrument.
  2. False Writing
    • The second element of the forgery crime that prosecutors have to show is false writing, as not all false writings qualify for forgery prosecution. Legally, false writing is a document that bears some legal significance, meaning that they affect people’s personal or economic rights. Examples of documents that have legal significance in a forgery prosecution include:
      • birth certificates, drivers’ licenses, passports, immigration papers, and other documents issued by the government;
      • transaction documents, such as deeds, conveyances, invoices, and receipts; 
      • financial documents, such as bond certificates, currencies, checks, or stock certificates; 
      • wills, patents, medical prescriptions, and works of art; and
      • letters of recommendation, doctor’s notes, and similar documents depending on the circumstances.

        A false writing can be either entirely fabricated or a materially altered version of a pre-existing document.
  3. Intent to Defraud
    • In order to hold the defendant accountable for forgery, prosecutors must prove they intended to defraud. It does not matter whether or not the defendant completed the fraud, as long as that was the defendant’s intent.  Requiring intent to defraud protects those who come in possession of forged writings unwittingly, without knowing or realizing they were false. A typical example is the buyer of a used car or real estate, who unknowingly received a forged title from the seller.

Federal Forgery Laws

A variety of federal laws capture the crime of forgery. In terms of numbers, most forgery prosecutions happen primarily at the state level. Still, federal prosecutors aggressively prosecute certain types of forgeries. One example is identity theft and aggravated identity theft, when someone forges documents to impersonate or assume another person’s identity. Specific federal statutes deal with identity theft and aggravated identity theft, both felonies under federal law and punishable by a fine and imprisonment. 

Federal identity theft laws under 18 US Code § 1028 make it a crime to misuse someone’s identifying information, whether personal or financial. 18 U.S.C. § 1028 provides penalties for any person who knowingly produces identification or false document, or possesses documents with intent to defraud.

Other prosecutions federal law enforcement handles often are those that involve counterfeiting money, fake immigration documents, or military discharge certificates. Forgery automatically becomes a federal offense if a forged document is carried or mailed across interstate lines or if the forgery occurs in multiple states.


Forgery can have severe and far-reaching negative consequences on businesses and individuals. For this reason, law enforcement takes forgery quite seriously, and forgery is punished harshly.

Prison Professors, an Earning Freedom company, works alongside (not in place of) civil and criminal defense counsel to help clients proactively navigate through investigations and prosecutions. Our team also helps clients prepare mitigation and compliance strategies.

If you have any questions or are uncertain about any of the issues discussed in this post, schedule a call with our risk mitigation team to receive additional guidance.

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