California Credit Card Fraud Laws: An Overview

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As in all states, credit card fraud is a crime in California. Various sections of the California Penal Code set out different offenses relating to credit card fraud, as well as penalties for each. For example, a person may be charged with forgery if he signed the cardholder's name or a fictitious name in order to use a credit card that did not belong to him. Credit card fraud laws in California also apply to debit cards and other access cards.

California Credit Card Fraud Laws

In California, the laws relating to the criminal offense of credit card fraud can be found in the California Penal Code Sections 484e, 484f, 484g, 484h, 484i and 484j in the larceny chapter. Each section refers to a specific type of credit card fraud. The penalties for credit card fraud depend on the circumstances of the case as well as the defendant's criminal history.

If someone is charged with a first offense of credit card theft, she may receive a lighter sentence than someone who has a history of this type of crime. As always, each case is considered on its own facts.

Stolen Credit Cards

If a person sells, transfers or acquires another person’s credit card without that person’s consent, he may be charged with credit card fraud. Under California law, he could be charged with credit card fraud even if he hasn’t used the stolen card – possession alone is considered a violation of the law.

Possession of stolen credit cards under California Penal Code Section 484e is one example of hundreds of "wobbler" offenses in California. A wobbler is a crime that can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. In most cases, it is the prosecutor who decides whether to charge a wobbler as a felony or a misdemeanor, but the degree of punishment is entirely at the judge's discretion. Additionally, a judge can also reduce the charge before sentencing.

In this case, if the defendant possessed stolen cards and intended to use, sell or transfer them to a person other than the cardholder, but did not actually use them, the offense is considered a petty theft misdemeanor and is punishable by six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. However, if the defendant possessed a stolen credit card with the intent to use it fraudulently, it is considered grand theft felony and is punishable by up to three years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000.

Forging Credit Card Information

The offense of forging credit card information involves changing an existing credit card, creating a fake credit card or signing another person’s name in a credit card transaction without that other person’s consent. Again, there must be an intent to defraud for the person to be criminally liable. This means someone who used someone else’s credit card to pay for goods or services with the cardholder’s permission lacks the necessary element of intent.

Forging credit card information under California Penal Code Section 484f is another wobbler offense. The punishment depends on the defendant's previous criminal record as well as on the facts of the case. If it is prosecuted as a misdemeanor, it is punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. If it is prosecuted as a felony, the maximum jail sentence is three years, which may be accompanied by a fine of up to $10,000.

Fraudulent Use of Credit Card

Fraudulent use of a credit card involves using a stolen, fake, forged, altered, revoked or expired credit card to get cash or goods, with the knowledge that it is not a valid credit card. For someone to be found guilty of credit card fraud, the prosecution must prove intent. This means a person who uses a cancelled or expired credit card to pay for goods or services without knowing the card is cancelled or expired has a defense because he lacks the requisite intent to be held criminally liable.

Like other credit card fraud offenses, a crime under Penal Code Section 484g is a felony or a misdemeanor based on the value of the funds stolen. If the amount is $950 in a six-month period, it is considered to be petty theft with penalties of up to six months jail time and a fine of up to $1,000. However, if it exceeds $950, it will be charged as a grand theft felony, with a sentence of up to three years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000.

Credit Card Fraud by Retailer

A retailer may be found guilty of credit card fraud if she accepts payment via a stolen, expired, revoked or fake credit card knowing that the credit card is not valid. This offense also covers providing fake proof of a transaction to receive payment for goods when the transaction did not take place.

Credit card fraud by a retailer carries the same punishments as fraudulent use of a credit card. If the value of funds stolen was $950 or less, it is treated as a misdemeanor and is punishable by six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. If the value of funds stolen exceeds $950, it is a grand theft felony and carries a jail term of up to three years and a fine of up to $10,000.

Counterfeiting Credit Cards

Counterfeiting credit cards, making or possessing counterfeit credit cards, possessing a blank card with the intent to turn it into a counterfeit credit card or possessing the equipment needed to make a counterfeit credit card are misdemeanors under California Penal Code Section 484i, punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. However, this is another wobbler offense that can lead to a three-year prison sentence and/or a fine of up to $10,000, depending on the specifics of the case.

Publishing Credit Card Information

Knowingly communicating credit card information, including PIN numbers, passwords or other private account information with the intent to defraud a person or entity, is the definition of the offense of publishing credit card information. In California, "publishing" has a very broad definition. It could mean digital, verbal or written communication, such as publication on a website; broadcast on radio or television; or in writing in a letter, circular, magazine article or book. It is also against the law to communicate any information relating to credit card or bank account information, such as ATM PINs or debit card numbers.

Publishing credit card information under California Penal Code Section 484j is a misdemeanor that can carry a six-month jail sentence if convicted, plus a $1,000 fine.

Federal Credit Card Fraud

Under the United States Code, credit card fraud is illegal and therefore eligible for prosecution by the U.S. government. The maximum penalty is 20 years in prison plus fines, which vary depending on the facts of each case. As well as being charged with a crime under the California Penal Code, someone who commits credit card fraud may also be charged with a federal offense if the alleged crime took place on government property or against a government body, or occurred across state lines.

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About the Author

Claire is a qualified lawyer and specialized in family law before becoming a full-time writer. She has written for many digital publications, including The Washington Post, Forbes, Vice and HealthCentral.