Under common law, false pretense is defined as a representation of a present or past fact, which the thief knows to be false, and which he intends will and does cause the victim to pass title of his property. That is, false pretense is the acquisition of title from a victim by fraud or misrepresentation of a material past or present fact.
Note that it is essential that the victim of the false pretenses must actually be deceived by the misrepresentation, and the fact that the victim is deceived must be a major (if not the only) factor of the victim granting title to the defendant. Simply making a false promise or statement is not sufficient. It is not a defense to false pretenses charge that a reasonable person would not have been deceived by the false representation. No matter how gullible the victim, if she was in fact deceived the offense has been committed. On the other hand the offense requires the victim believe the representation to be true. If the person to whom the representation has been made has doubts or serious misgivings about the truth of the representation but nonetheless goes through with the transaction he has not been deceived - he has basically assumed the risk of a false representation.
The misrepresentation has to be affirmative. A failure to disclose a fact does not fit this misrepresentation in common law, unless there is a fiduciary duty between the thief and victim. Courts have also held that the representation be of a present or past fact. The policy here is that to rely on a future fact is more foolish. People who deceive using present facts are more dangerous than those who deceive by false promises. At trial, the prosecution must show not only that the misrepresentation was false, but that the thief knew of the falsity. Additionally, the thief must intend to defraud. Moreover, opinion and puffing are not considered misrepresentation as they color the facts but do not misrepresent them.
Additionally, title must pass between parties. So, deceiving a third party to pass property for a specific purpose, courts have held that this is larceny by trick in that larceny by trick simply uses a deception to deprive the owner of possession, not title.
False pretences as a concept in the criminal law is no longer used in English law. It used to refer to the means whereby the defendant obtained any chattel, money or valuable security from any other person with intent to defraud. It used to be an indictable misdemeanour under the Larceny Act 1861 as amended by the Larceny Act 1916. The modern concept is a deception and it is used as the common basis of the actus reus (the Latin for "guilty act") in the deception offences under the Theft Act 1968 and in the Theft Act 1978.
False pretense is conventionally referred to as a crime against “title.” However, this is not to be taken literally for the simple reason that a person who obtains ownership of property by deceit does not obtain full title to the property; only a voidable title.. False pretense applies to situations where the wrongdoer by deceit obtains “title or ownership – or whatever property interest the victim had in the chattel, if it was less than title.” Larceny by Trick applies to situations where the wrongdoer by deceit obtains possession only, with the victim retaining ownership or some superior interest in the chattel.
The determination as to whether the offense is larceny or false pretenses can have significant effect on the ability of true owner to reclaim the appropriated property. If false pretenses, a bona fide purchaser for value would acquire title superior to the victim; whereas, if the crime is larceny a purchaser from the wrongdoer, bona fide or otherwise, would not acquire any title to the property and would have to return the property to the victim.
The broad distinction between this offence and larceny is that in the former the owner intends to part with his property, in the latter he does not. This offence dates as a statutory crime practically from 1756. At common law the only remedy originally available for an owner who had been deprived of his goods by fraud was an indictment for the crime of cheating, or a civil action for deceit. These remedies were insufficient to cover all cases where money or other properties had been obtained by false pretences, and the offence was first partially created by a statute of Henry VIII (1541), which enacted that if any person should falsely and deceitfully obtain any money, goods, &c., by means of any false token or counterfeit letter made in any other man's name, the offender should suffer any punishment other than death, at the discretion of the judge. The scope of the offence was enlarged to include practically all false pretences by the act of 1756, the provisions of which were embodied in the Larceny Act 1861.
The principal points to notice are that the pretence must be a false pretence of some existing fact, made for the purpose of inducing the prosecutor to part with his property (e.g. it was held not to be a false pretence to promise to pay for goods on delivery), and it may be by either words or conduct. The property, too, must have been actually obtained by the false pretence. The owner must be induced by the pretence to make over the absolute and immediate ownership of the goods, otherwise it is larceny by means of a trick. It is not always easy, however, to draw a distinction between the various classes of offences. In the case where a man goes into a restaurant and orders a meal, and, after consuming it, says that he has no means of paying for it, it was usual to convict for obtaining food by false pretences. But ??. v. Jones, 1898, L.R. I Q.B. ff9 decided that it is neither larceny nor false pretences, but an offence under the Debtors Act 1869, of obtaining credit by fraud.