Is lying on a survey illegal?

If a survey is being done, either for scientific purposes or to collect information inside a workplace, is it legal to lie in it? For example if the workplace wants to know how many employees have peanut allergies, would lying about the answer be illegal?

Does it make a difference what type of relationship you have with the party presenting you with the survey, for example if it's if given to you at your job vs customer satisfaction at a coffee shop you visited?

• Define "survey." – barbecue Mar 4 at 19:49
• Whose survey is this? Your Government's or a private organisation's? What conditions did you sign up to? – Robbie Goodwin Mar 4 at 22:20
• Side note: when you could not breath due to a severe case of allergy that "no, I don't have peanut allergy" checkbox may be as good as a death sentence... Be careful what you decide to lie about. – Alexei Levenkov Mar 4 at 23:56
• If the survey were your national Census, then yes lying would be an offense. – Criggie Mar 5 at 0:29
• A couple of high-level comments: (1) The question is tagged: contract-law tort, yet the top-voted answer starts by talking about “crime[s]”. These are very different areas of law. (2) It might be helpful to have a jurisdiction, especially if we are going to start talking about a “national Census”. – Brian Drake Mar 5 at 4:37

There are a very few government surveys which it is a crime to lie in responding to, most notably, census related surveys. Proving that a representation is false with respect to some questions (e.g. race or nationality) are challenging to prove and the subject of lots of hypothetical discussion. But proving misrepresentation with respect to other matters (e.g. how old you are) could be easy. This kind of survey is probably the only one where there could be criminal consequences.

In the context of an employer-employee relationship, proving causation of damages from an inaccurate survey response would be almost impossible as a practical matter, but a proving an instance of lying on a survey could constitute generalized evidence of dishonesty that could constitute grounds (at least in part with other evidence) for denying an unemployment benefits claim or terminating an employee who has civil service protections or who can only be terminated pursuant to an employment contract for cause. A similar analysis could apply if the person lying on the firm sponsored survey was (or was an officer or manager of) an independent contractor or agent or business partner of the firm of some type in a case seeking to terminate that relationship for cause (and possibly triggering liquidated damages under a contract between the parties).

In the context of a generalized public opinion survey, at most, the firm asking the survey questions might have a right to sue for any amount that the person was paid to participate in the survey (this would also be true for employer/firm sponsored surveys and while the amount might be small, this dollar amount could be important to showing that there were "some damages" caused by fraud and thus preventing a fraud claim from being dismissed on a motion for summary judgment).

Conceivably, taking money to complete a general purpose survey with an intent not to answer truthfully could give rise to a criminal mail or wire fraud claim under federal law, but even then, showing that the matter misrepresented was material in a survey context beyond a reasonable doubt would be hard and the FBI has a non-binding policy of not prosecuting mail and wire fraud cases involving private parties in cases where less than $75,000 is at stake absent extraordinary reasons for doing so. • My great-grandparents changed their "Country Of Origin" answers every 10 years, depending on what was available, and who was in favor, and who wasn't. German? Russian? Polish? Lithuanian? My grandmother grew up in a small city in what is now Poland - but she was never Polish. The lived in the Russian Empire - except, as she put it, they spoke German at home, Polish with the neighbors, Russian in school, and Yiddish with the shopkeepers. They never lied about anything - but back in the day "nationality" and "ethnicity" could be variables rather than being fixed. :-) – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Mar 5 at 0:55 • @DM Willfully giving false answers during a census clearly is a crime: US CODE, TITLE 13 --- Census, Chapter 7 --- Offenses and Penalties, Subchapter II --- Other Persons, Article 221. Refusal or neglect to answer questions; false answers: (b) "Whoever, when answering questions described in subsection (a) of this section, and under the conditions or circumstances described in such subsection, willfully gives any answer that is false, shall be fined not more than$500 or imprisoned not more than one year, or both." (a) describes citizens over 18, etc. asked for information by DOC. – DaveClark Mar 5 at 3:38
• @DaveClark How old is your copy of that statute? The prison time was amended out way back in 1976. – D M Mar 5 at 3:44
• @DaveClark govinfo.gov/content/pkg/STATUTE-90/pdf/STATUTE-90-Pg2459.pdf - see page 7 of that PDF for the place where the prison time was struck out of the law. – D M Mar 5 at 3:48
• What about not outright lying per se but rather submitting information you are unsure about because you don't know how to answer the question / it doesn't make sense to you? – The_Sympathizer Mar 5 at 16:48

Is lying on a survey illegal?

An intentional misrepresentation is actionable to the extent that (1) it causes harm, and (2) the surveyor's reliance on those representations is justified. The latter implies that the surveyor ought to make a judicious use of the information available: the surveyed person might not have been duly informed of how his answers will be used, which tends to forfeit surveyor's right to rely on those answers for the more sensitive purposes.

Using your example, a survey in the workplace might be conducted for health & safety purposes. Lying could lead to workers' illness and the company might incur losses in terms of medical care, lost [business] opportunities, lower productivity, and legal disputes. In such instances, the focus would shift to the issue of whether surveyor's reliance was reasonable, which relates to your follow-up question.

Does it make a difference what type of relationship you have

Yes. An employee has a greater duty to advance the employer's interests than the typical customer or random person who fills a satisfaction survey. Surveyor's reliance on the latter is less justified because it is not reasonable to presume that customer's (or random person's) interests are in line with the surveyor's.

A surveyor can always try to procure from the customer an enforceable commitment to respond to the best of his knowledge, but that tends to deter even bona fide customers from participating in the survey for fear of inadvertently incurring liability.

It depends on the purpose for lying and the jurisdiction.

If there are any unfair or fraudulent advantages be gained by lying then it might be unlawful.

A hyperthetical example: those employees with an allergy may get a payrise to cover the cost of their medication or the employer may pay for add-ons to their health insurance. Someone who falsely claims these benefits without an allergy may be committing fraud and/or a disciplinary offence.

• I probably should have given a better example at first, but what if some employees lie claiming they do have peanut allergies when in fact they don't. Then the company builds another lunch room for those with allergies, and wonders why fewer than expected people are using it. Could the company then sue those who lied? – AlexP Mar 4 at 9:46
• Regarding this answer, there's a difference between a survey, designed to gather statistical or demographic information and normally conducted anonymously, and a company specifically asking individual staff members to certify their own disabilities or needs. If you claim to be need a specific thing which the company then provides (as with your example of the company providing money to cover medication), but you're lying, that could certainly be considered gross misconduct, if not fraud, in many cases. But that's arguably different to filling in a survey. – Stuart F Mar 4 at 16:13
• @AlexP, you are right, the peanut allergy is rather a purely theoretical example. It's nearly impossible to prove that one doesn't have a peanut allergy, and even if the plaintiff manages to, it's certainly impossible to prove that the lying was intentional, not a belief in good faith that they had the allergy—even if a medical expert witness testifies it was not in fact true. – kkm Mar 5 at 1:01

According to the NBC news site:

"Federal law provides that anyone who refuses to answer or willfully neglects to answer any of the questions in connection with any census or survey shall be fined a maximum of $100, or a maximum of$500 if the person gives false information."

The Census Bureau conducts the American Community Survey as its primary source of detailed information. People have been fined $100 for refusing to participate. I have never heard of anyone being fined$500 for giving false information to the ACS.

It is possible that people have to participate in other Bureau surveys that are conducted for other agencies.

A fine of $100 or$500 doesn't seem to reflect a criminal penalty.

My wife, who has done numerous surveys and analyzed the public use data files of many more was genuinely taken aback when I asked her this.

So, with the possible exception of the Census itself and the American Community Survey, there does not appear to be any law forbidding either a refusal to participate or lying on a survey. Observations made here seem to be about civil damages, not about crimes.

• Especially given that this is the Law site, quoting the actual law is probably better than citing an unknown NBC News web article. It's 13 U.S. Code § 221, by the way. – D M Mar 4 at 23:36

In the US at least, a response to a survey (verbal or written) is a form of speech. You can't be generically compelled to give accurate, truthful answers to all surveys you'll ever encounter. Certain official government surveys (the census, etc) are sufficiently important to justify mandatory truthfulness, but that list is rather short and those surveys will include a warning/disclaimer indicating that this is the case. When it's that important, they'll want to make sure you're aware of it and can't claim ignorance later.

Surveys between you and a private party (such as a business or employer) might be subject to terms of a contract. Your employment contract (for example) might have a clause that requires truthful responses to employee surveys. If that's the case then lying wouldn't be illegal in the criminal sense, but it could put you in breach of contract and expose you to civil suit or any penalties the contract outlines.

In order to enforce a penalty for lying, the surveyor would have to:

1. be able to trace responses back to the individuals who submitted them
2. have some way to discover the correct answer on their own and compare it to the provided response

That means that there's no meaningful way to enforce a truthfulness requirement on an anonymous survey. For nearly all of the surveys you'll ever see, the survey only exists because the surveyor has no reasonable way to gather that data on their own. Thus, they would be unable to do the second item. The exceptions would be things like the census, where the raw data can be gathered directly but is too onerous to do as a primary way of gathering data. These are the cases with the nice big warning at the top that quotes the relevant statute about truthfulness in responses.

Regarding your example survey, allergies are personal health information and protected by laws like HIPAA. Your employer can't require you to answer that question truthfully or even to answer at all. Merely asking the question is enough to make some lawyers nervous.

From a statistical standpoint, well-designed surveys should accommodate for this. Results are published with a margin of error, and responses are over-sampled so that bad data gets drowned out by accurate data. The number of respondents who fabricate results is generally much lower than the number who provide incorrect information by mistake. Compensating for these honest mistakes will compensate for the misleading responses as well. Misleading responses will have a larger impact in surveys with a very small number of overall responses, but the margin of error in such surveys is already rather large. For that reason, it would be quite difficult for an employer to argue that your specific response caused them damage when their decisions were based on aggregate information. If the issue was important enough that it could do meaningful damage to them, then they should have done more than blindly trust general survey responses.

• HIPAA does not apply to one's employer. HIPAA only applies to covered entities. – Ryan M Mar 5 at 3:07
• @RyanM what's the difference between a "company health plan" (a covered entity) and an "employer"? – grovkin Mar 5 at 11:30
• @grovkin a company health plan is purchased by the employer from a health insurance company, who administers it (the only cases I've heard of where it's run by the employer is where the employer is a health insurance company). – Ryan M Mar 5 at 18:39
• @RyanM the company acts as an intermediary agent for purchasing the plan for an employee at that point. I am not sure if you ever heard of pre-existing conditions being revealed on enrollment forms, but these forms go through HR. – grovkin Mar 6 at 5:26

It depends what the question is. If it refers to the future, as in how will you vote in the forthcoming elections, then it is impossible to lie about the future. As someone once said you must have a laser focus on the question.

The explanatory notes for the UK Census say You must complete the census by law. If you do not, or if you supply false information you could be fined up to £1000.

There are optional questions on the census which do not need to be answered so no prosecution can arise.

If your job is a Government job and particularly in the Defence sector then the similar sanctions may apply.

Since there is no tag, I will post this answer (well, more like an addition) for completeness.

In Russia, it's not a crime to lie on nationwide censuses. In fact, a person being surveyed cannot even be enforced to give the information about themselves (gender, age, ethnicity etc.) by the surveyor: see Russian Federal Law No. 8 issued 25/1/2002 (edition as of 8/6/2020) (link leads to Russian text of the law), Article 6, part 2.