California Credit Card Fraud Laws

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 What Is California Credit Card Theft?

Credit card theft, also known as credit card fraud, is a crime that takes place when a person steals or attempts to steal another person’s credit card or credit card information (number, expiration date, security code). After they steal the card or information, they use it or attempt to use it to make a purchase. 

The crime of credit card fraud includes not only using credit cards, but all access cards to include debit cards, ATM cards, the account numbers associated with credit accounts, or other means of accessing the accounts to then use the information to obtain anything of value. Anything of value means money, goods, or services.

In California, the definition of credit card fraud is more broad. It includes a person using their own credit card with the intent to defraud creditors by making purchases with the card but not paying the balance. In addition, a person with access to an expired card who knows it is expired and  continues to use it can be charged with theft.

What Are the Credit Card Fraud Laws in California?

California has specific laws governing the unauthorized use of credit cards. Credit card fraud is prosecuted as a theft offense and the penalties depend on whether the offense is characterized as petty theft or grand theft

A person who makes a counterfeit credit or access card or attempts to use a counterfeit card can be guilty of the crime of forgery. A person other than the authorized cardholder, or a person who does not have permission from the cardholder, who signs someone’s name with the intent to defraud can also be charged with forgery.

Credit card fraud is addressed in the California Penal Code, sections 484d – 484j:

  • Stealing credit cards – Section 484e
  • Forging credit card information – Section 484f
  • Fraudulent use of a credit card – Section  484g
  • Credit card fraud by a retailer – Section 484h
  • Counterfeiting credit cards – Section 484i
  • Publishing credit card information – Section 484j

What Is Access Card Grand Theft in California?

Access card grand theft includes the following:

  • Selling, transferring, or conveying an access card without the cardholder’s consent, and with the intent to defraud. 
  • Acquiring or retaining access cards belonging to four or more people over the course of 12 months, when the person knew or should have known that the cards were stolen or counterfeit.
  • Acquiring or retaining another person’s account information with the intent to use it fraudulently.
  • Using an access card that is counterfeit or has been obtained in violation of the law to obtain money, goods, service, or anything else of value over six consecutive months, where the value is more than $950.

A person suspected to have committed credit card fraud can be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony. Offenses that can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony are known as “wobbler” offenses. More serious instances of credit card fraud will be charged as felonies and carry more serious penalties, including fines up to $10,000 and one to three years in prison.

A defendant found guilty of misdemeanor credit card fraud might face up to one year in county jail, a fine or up to $1,000, or both.

What Is Access Card Forgery in California?

The California Penal Code makes it a crime to forge credit cards or credit card information. That includes making, altering, or designing a counterfeit card, or attempting to use a counterfeit access card. This crime is a forgery offense. 

Signing someone else’s name, or the name of a fictitious person, on an access card, a sales receipt, or any other instrument used for an access card transaction, is forgery.

Similar to the crime of grand theft, in California forgery offenses can be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies, depending on the seriousness of the crime. Misdemeanor forgery is punishable by up to one year in county jail, a fine of up to $1,000, or both. Felony forgery carries a penalty of one to three years in prison, a fine of up to $10,000, or both. A defendant found guilty of forgery will often be required to pay restitution to the victim or victims of their crime.

What Are Petty Theft and Fraudulent Use of Access Card Information Laws in California?

In California it is a crime for a person to use an access card that has been obtained, altered, or retained in violation of the law or that the person knows is forged, expired, or revoked, and with the intent to defraud and to obtain money, goods, services, or anything else of value. It is also a crime for a person to represent that they are the holder of a card that they do not have permission to use, and which was not issued to them to obtain money, goods, services, or anything else of value.

When the value of the money, goods, services, etc. is less than $950, the person can be charged with petty theft. Penalties for petty theft may include a fine of between $50 and $1,000, up to six months imprisonment, or both. 

Retailers who allow access cards to be used that they know are fake, forged, altered, or stolen can be charged with credit card fraud. The penalties for retailers found guilty of credit card fraud will depend on the severity of the crime.

Is Counterfeiting Access Cards Illegal?

In California it is illegal for anyone to possess an incomplete access card with the intent to complete the card without the cardholder’s permission. Possession of an incomplete access card is a misdemeanor. 

Making changes to, altering, or modifying access cards or their account information, including the information encoded on the magnetic strip, chip, or other part of the card not visible to the human eye, with the intent to defraud, is forgery. 

Designing, making, possessing, or trafficking in equipment used to make access cards with the intent that the equipment be used to make counterfeit access cards, is a crime. Penalties include up to one year imprisonment in county jail.

For a defendant to be guilty of possession of stolen credit card crimes, they must have the intent to defraud, or the intent to use, sell or transfer the card to another person. Simply possessing someone else’s card without the intent to use it or transfer it to another person is not enough to be found guilty of theft.

Should I Hire an Attorney for Credit Card Fraud in California?

Credit card fraud in California is a serious offense that can lead to severe penalties. The law covers numerous offenses that qualify as credit card fraud, and it can be difficult to understand the various crimes and their potential penalties. It is in your best interest to consult with a California criminal lawyer if you are facing charges of credit card fraud.

An experienced criminal lawyer will help you understand the charges against you, evaluate any defenses that might be available, and communicate with the prosecutor handling your case. They can negotiate a plea agreement and represent you in court.


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