What Is the Punishment for Credit Card Fraud?

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Credit card fraud covers a variety of offenses. In its most basic form, it involves physically using someone else’s card to make purchases, but it can also mean stealing credit card information to charge purchases, or opening accounts in someone else’s name with no intention of paying the bill. State laws can vary in the details, but punishments and penalties for the crime usually depend on the amount of money involved.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

Credit card fraud can be either a misdemeanor or a felony offense. Punishment starts with fines in the range of $1,000 to $2,500 and can reach up to $25,000 in some cases; in the worst case, you're looking at 15 years in state prison.

Different Kinds of Fraud

Credit card fraud ranges from stealing someone’s card to just accessing the number, expiration date and other information and using the card online or over the phone. You may have heard horror stories of skimming devices placed on gas pumps and ATMs. When an unsuspecting customer swipes his card, the gadget reads and gathers this pertinent information, and the thief either uses the credit card for himself or sells the information to someone else to use.

Credit card fraud can also involve identity theft. The thief accesses your personal information, such as your Social Security number, then either sells the information to other people to open accounts in your name without your knowledge, or he opens such accounts himself. He might reach out to your credit card company, pretending to be you, then change your address to his own and ask that a replacement card be sent to him. When he receives it, he can charge on your account. You might even be guilty of credit card fraud yourself if you try to use your own account knowing that it’s expired or that the lender has revoked your charging privileges.

The Extent of the Theft

Punishment for credit card fraud crimes usually hinges on the value of property purchased with the fraudulent credit card information. Individual states have their own limits, but the dividing line is often just a few hundred dollars. If the cutoff is $250 and a thief charges less than this, penalties are typically not as stiff. If he charges more, punishment is more severe. These values may not apply to single purchases. In some states, they’re an aggregate of what was charged or stolen over a certain period of time, such as six months.

Misdemeanors vs. Felonies

Purchases made under a state’s cutoff are typically misdemeanors. If they’re over the statutory limit, they may be charged as felonies. This is a critical difference, because when someone is convicted on a misdemeanor charge, it usually means incarceration in a county jail. Felony convictions can send defendants to state prison. The line between misdemeanors and felonies can be thin, because each state divides them into classes. The same crime might be charged as the most serious class of misdemeanor or the least serious class of felony. This type of case is a “wobbler” – it can fall on either side of the fence depending on the discretion of the prosecutor or the judge. It could be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony depending how the prosecutor feels on the day.

Broad Range of Penalties

Misdemeanors are often punishable by fines in the range of $1,000 to $2,500 or so, and no more than a year in county jail. Fines for felonies can reach as high as $25,000 and result in up to 15 years in state prison, although a lower class felony may result in one to five years of incarceration. It’s highly dependent on the laws in your state, so you might want to consult with a local lawyer.

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About the Author

Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.