Credit/Debit Card Theft: Punishments, Penalties and Consequences

The offenses related to stolen credit cards have gradually increased over the last several years thanks to an increase in credit card use over paper checks. When credit cards were first gaining in popularity, the number one credit card theft crime was stealing a credit card user's statement out of the mailbox. The thief would then use the person’s credit card number to make fraudulent purchases. Credit card theft has evolved and today it involves more than just stealing a credit card statement from a mailbox. Fortunately, the laws for credit card theft have expanded and now include broader applications, increased punishments, and more overlap with other offenses. 

Defining Credit and Debit Card Theft Today

Some defendants think they will avoid prosecution if they only use a stolen credit card number instead of physically using the credit card or debit card. Because of the evolution of credit card laws, credit card theft now includes the unauthorized use of the actual credit or debit card and the unauthorized use of the account number related to the card, plus often the pin number. It doesn’t matter how a defendant obtained the credit card, the account number, or the pin number. All that matters is he possessed the card number without authorization.

Some states require that a defendant actually use the card or account number to proceed with a credit card theft offense. However, some states will authorize a conviction if a defendant merely possesses a credit card or debit card with intent to use it without authorization. In these cases, the state will not require a completed act of using the card. If a state does not have a specific credit card theft statute, then they will have a very similar, alternate charge of credit card abuse. Additionally, because they are similar in physical and electronic formats, many states will apply the same criminal statutes to debit cards as they do to credit cards.

What are the Penalties for Credit or Debit Card Theft?

The actual penalties for credit card theft or abuse vary by state. Punishments range from a misdemeanor to a felony offense. For example, some credit card theft offenses in Connecticut are considered misdemeanors. All credit card abuse cases are considered felonies in Texas. In addition to these variations, some states will also enhance punishment ranges if the credit card was stolen from an elderly individual.

Even though credit/debit card theft is considered a felony in many states, the length of potential jail time tends to be far less than assault offenses because credit card theft is only directed toward property. Prosecutors frequently use suspended sentences or deferred adjudications as a method of collecting restitution for victims of credit card theft. The amount of restitution can include any charges incurred from the use of the credit card and the amount of funds expended by a victim to clear up their credit history. 

A defendant being charged with credit card theft is potentially subject to other charges. If a state has other criminal codes for mail fraud, forgery, or fraudulent use of identifying information, then many will authorize the prosecutor to seek a conviction for every applicable statute. If a defendant tampered with U.S. mail, they could also subject themselves to state or federal charges for mail fraud.

Handling a Credit Card Theft Charge: Should I Contact an Attorney?

Though not usually punished by a life sentence, credit card theft is still a serious offense that can result in a felony conviction. Because of the plethora of other potential charges, a defendant should at least consult with a criminal attorney about his actual exposure to all pending and potential credit card charges.