Busted for card theft? What to expect
Depending on where you live, the penalties for card theft will vary
Writes regularly about personal finance and health
Using someone else’s credit card without their permission may be a quick way to get your hands on some much-needed cash or treat yourself to something you otherwise couldn’t afford, but it may cost you hefty fines and even land you in jail.
The penalties you would face for using someone else’s credit card without their permission vary depending on what state you live in, says Eric J. Trabin, a former prosecutor who now is a criminal defense attorney with The Trabin Law Firm in Maitland, Florida. Different states have different laws and guidelines for prosecuting such cases.
There are also many different behaviors that could constitute a credit card-related crime. For example, if you go into someone’s purse or wallet and physically take their credit card without their permission, that would be considered “theft by taking” or “unlawful possession” of a credit card, Trabin says.
Then, if you actually use that card to buy something without the cardholder’s permission, that action would be considered credit card fraud. “So, just the act of a person taking a family member’s credit card and using it – now you've got two crimes,” Trabin says.
If you use equipment designed to create counterfeit cards such as skimmers you may be in violation of other state or federal laws, incurring even more penalties. “That’s a totally different kind of credit card fraud, which is credit card forgery,” says Trabin.
Different regions, different penalties
Not only do states set their own penalties, but they also have their own guidelines for determining what constitutes a minor offense, a misdemeanor or what constitutes a felony.
In some states, a minor credit card-related offense can lead to a fine, probation or a short stint in jail. Crimes that are considered felonies are more serious in nature and would yield harsher punishments, such as higher fines or possibly a prison sentence.
Some states have certain thresholds in which the crime is considered more serious if more money has been charged on the card.
For example, in Florida, if you spend less than $300 on someone’s credit card without their permission, then it's considered a misdemeanor, says J. Samantha Vacciana, a criminal defense attorney in Boca Raton, Florida. That misdemeanor would subject you to a maximum of one year in the county jail and up to $1,000 in fines, Vacciana says.
However, if you charge $300 or more on that credit card, that would be considered a felony and you could face a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison.
In some states, other factors may determine whether a crime is considered a misdemeanor or a felony.
In Texas, for example, if credit card fraud is committed against an elderly person, it is automatically considered a third-degree felony and the penalties can range from two to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $10,000.
In some states there are efforts underway to strengthen laws to fight credit card crimes.
For example, in Pennsylvania, Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York County) has introduced legislation that would not only make it illegal to use devices that can access information from credit card magnetic stripes and chips, but would make it illegal to even have such devices on your possession.
“What we’re hoping to do is to add some teeth to our crimes code and give our law enforcement the tools that they need to keep the community safe and protect our citizens from this type of theft,” Phillips-Hill says.
There are also civil penalties you could be subject to. If you use someone’s credit card fraudulently, they could decide to sue you, and the burden of proof is lower in a civil case than in a criminal case, Trabin adds.
How card theft can wreck your life
There are other ways that committing credit card theft or fraud can complicate your life.
Once you’ve been arrested for fraud, it can be difficult to get a job or get approved for an apartment, Vacciana says. Depending on where you live you could lose the right to vote or the right to own a gun.
If you use a loved one’s card fraudulently, you may damage or even destroy the relationship. In some cases, a family member may not want to see you prosecuted, but they may have to report the charges you made as being fraudulent in order to avoid having to pay for those charges themselves.
If you find yourself on the wrong side of the law in a case of credit card theft, the first thing you should do is consult a criminal defense attorney, says Esther Gehrman Sirotnik, general counsel for Avvo, an online legal directory service.
Taking someone’s card is a very serious crime, Gehrman Sirotnik says, “and it can be compounded by how you use the stolen card.”
You may be able to get a lesser sentence in some cases, such as if you are a juvenile, if you agree to a plea arrangement or if this is your first offense, Vacciana says.
For example, some first-time offenders may be ordered to do community service or to be on probation rather than serving any time or paying any fines.
The best way to avoid legal troubles is to avoid using someone else’s credit card without their permission in the first place. Getting away with credit card theft isn’t easy, Trabin says. If someone uses a credit card in a store, there is typically a camera. If someone uses their computer to make a purchase, there is often a way to trace it.
“Everything has a paper trail,” Trabin says. “It’s easy to get caught.”
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