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How Serious a Crime Is Credit Card Theft and Fraud?

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≔ Highlights

  • Credit card fraud laws vary by state.
  • Fraud often involves misuse and ill intent.
  • Penalties range from misdemeanor fines to felonies carrying years of jail time.

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If you have a credit card, you have to worry — at least a little — about credit card fraud. Have you ever wondered, though, if fraudsters ever actually get caught? If so, what kind of consequences do they face?

States make the call

For the most part, the statutes governing credit card fraud are determined by individual states. Those statutes differ from one state to the next.

In California, the Penal Code is specific and dense to read. The most common crimes referred to are:

  • Using someone else’s credit or debit card without that person’s consent.
  • Using your own credit or debit card knowing that it has been revoked or expired or that your available balance is less than the purchase price.
  • Using a stolen or fraudulent credit or debit card to receive money, goods or services.

» MORE: How to Dispute Fraudulent Credit Card Charges

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Crime and punishment

The test is really “fraudulent use,” so don’t worry if you accidentally use a card you canceled. There has to be intent, and other thresholds have to be met. One such threshold that goes beyond “fraudulent intent” is “to obtain a benefit,” often more than $1,000.

Here we’re talking about forgery, alteration, stealing, counterfeiting and even publishing someone else’s information. What a thief actually does will determine if the charge is petty or grand theft, or forgery. The consequences (as in any criminal case) will also depend on the circumstances and the thief’s criminal history.

In general, however, both grand theft and forgery are felonies, subjecting the perpetrator to 16 months or two or three years in California state prison and a maximum $10,000 fine, or as a misdemeanor to up to one year in a county jail and a maximum $1,000 fine. (Petty theft is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six-months in a county jail and a maximum $1,000 fine).

Texas is different. The statutes are pretty specific as to what is illegal and is punishable by what Texas calls a “state jail felony.” It sounds bad, but it’s actually the least serious felony in Texas law. Here, a thief gets a minimum of six months in jail but no more than two years, and a fine not to exceed $10,000.

Federal penalties dwarf states’

Oh, but we aren’t done yet. There are federal violations that often are attached to credit card fraud. These appear under Title 18 USC 1029. If a thief pulls his stunt on government property across state lines, or against a government entity, then federal charges may apply. The consequences there are much worse – as in, 10 to 20 years in prison.

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