California's credit / debit / access card fraud laws prohibit any type of fraudulent activity that takes place involving
- credit debit or access cards...also referred to as "access" cards, or
- the information contained in or related to a credit / debit card account.
You have "fraudulent" intent if you intend to deceive another person or entity to the point where that person or entity suffers a loss, and you benefit from an undeserved gain.
There are a number of these laws that deal with specific types of credit card fraud violations, each of which carries its own punishment.
Common examples of California credit or debit card fraud include (but are not limited to):
- using someone else's credit or debit card without that person's consent,
- using your own credit or debit card knowing that it has been revoked or expired or that your available balance is less than the purchase price, and
- using a stolen or fraudulent credit or debit card to receive money, goods or services.
Some common legal defenses to California credit card fraud include:
- you didn't intend to commit a fraud,
- there is insufficient evidence to convict you of the offense, and/or
- you are the victim of mistaken identity.
Again, the penalties for California credit card fraud vary depending on the specific circumstances of the offense. That said, most instances of credit/debit card fraud are punishable as
- forgery (which, as a felony subjects you to 16 months or two or three years in the California state prison and a maximum $10,000 fine, or as a misdemeanor to up to one year in a county jail and a maximum $1,000 fine),
- grand theft (punishable in the same manner as forgery), or
- petty theft (a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six-months in a county jail and a maximum $1,000 fine).
In this article, our California criminal defense attorneys1 provide a comprehensive guide to understanding California's credit card fraud laws by addressing the following:
If, after reading this article, you would like more information, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
In addition, you may also find helpful information in our related articles on California's Fraud Laws; White Collar Crimes; California Theft Offenses; California Grand Theft; California Petty Theft; Identity Theft; Internet Fraud; Penal Code 487 PC Grand Theft; Penal Code 470 PC California's Forgery Law; Penal Code 459 PC California's Burglary Law; Penal Code 368 PC California's Elder Abuse Law; California Conspiracy Law; California Wobblers; California Felony Offenses; California Misdemeanor Offenses; and California Legal Defenses.
Simply put, you violate California's credit card fraud laws anytime you use or attempt to use a credit or debit card...or a credit or debit card account number...in an unlawful manner. And...as is the case with all California fraud offenses ...you are only guilty of this offense if your use of the credit or debit card is intentionally fraudulent. This means that if you don't intend to use a credit card in a fraudulent manner, you should not be convicted.
You intend to use a credit / debit card in a "fraudulent" manner if your credit / debit card use is intended to result in a loss to another person / entity and in an undeserved benefit for you.2
California's credit card laws are found in Penal Code sections 484e 484f 484g 484h and 484j PC. These laws are designed to punish a variety of fraudulent practices involving credit and debit cards and specifically prohibit
- counterfeiting or
- publishing information (that is, disseminating information to another person) about
credit or debit cards or credit/debit card account information.
The exact nature of the violation will dictate the penalties that you face, but generally speaking, all instances of California credit card fraud are punished as
- petty theft,
- grand theft, and/or
Credit and debit card fraud is also punishable as a federal offense. If, for example, you commit this type of fraud on government property, against a government entity or across state lines, you could alternatively (or additionally) be charged with violating our nation's federal fraud laws.
Section 1029 under Title 18 of the U.S. Code essentially prohibits the same conduct that is defined under California's credit card fraud laws.3 And because credit card fraud is such a wide-spread problem, there are a number of government agencies that work together to fight this white collar crime, including...but not limited to...the National Fraud Information Center (NFIC), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Federal credit card and debit card fraud subjects an offender to much greater penalties than state violations; a federal offender faces substantial fines and up to 20 years in prison.4
There are quite a few laws that prohibit California credit card and debit card fraud. Each of these bans a specific activity, as explained below.
You violate Penal Code 484e PC when you sell, transfer or acquire a credit or debit card...or the credit or debit card account information...without the true cardholder's consent.5 In the simplest terms, this law punishes the fraudulent possession of a credit card.
And as San Bernardino criminal defense attorney Michael Scafiddi6 explains, "It doesn't matter whether or not you actually commit the fraud - all that is relevant is that you intended to do so."7
Example: The police stop Omar for a traffic violation. When they ask for his name and I.D., the cops notice a variety of cards and checks in his wallet, all bearing other peoples' names, one of which was a home equity line credit card. The true owner of the card kept the equity line open, yet cancelled the card and threw it away.
Despite the fact that the card had been cancelled, the court ruled that it had nevertheless been "validly issued to another person" at some point so as to bring it within the parameters of this law. "The crime is possession of access card account information with a fraudulent intent. It does not require that the information actually be used or that the account of an innocent consumer actually be charged or billed. Thus, it does not require that the access card be valid at the time of the fraudulent possession. Provided the access card was once validly issued to another, it may be expired, revoked, or cancelled at the time of the fraudulent possession by a defendant."8
Most PC 484e offenses are punished as California grand theft a wobbler. A California wobbler offense is one that prosecutors may charge as either a California misdemeanor or a California felony depending on
- the facts of the case, and
- your criminal history.
The felony Penal Code 484e is punishable by either (a) probation and up to a year in county jail, or (b)16 months or two or three years in the California state prison and a $10,000 fine. The misdemeanor is punishable by up to one year in the county jail and a maximum $1,000 fine.
The exception applies to an instance where you acquire or retain possession of a credit card with the intent to use, sell or transfer it but don't actually do so. This action is considered a violation of California's petty theft law, which is only punishable by up to six months in a county jail and a maximum $1,000 fine.9
Penal Code 484f PC deals with forging credit cards. Forgery is defined as knowingly and unlawfully altering, creating or using (in this case, a credit card) for your own benefit and gain. You violate this law by
- altering an actual credit/debit card,
- counterfeiting or creating a fake credit card, and/or
- signing someone else's name during a transaction involving a credit or debit card without that person's authorization.10
Violations of this law are punished under Penal Code 470 PC California's
forgery law.11 Forgery is also a wobbler, subjecting you to the same penalties as grand theft noted above under Section 2.1.12
You violate Penal Code 484g PC when you knowingly use a
- expired or
credit or debit card in order to obtain money, goods, services or anything else of value.13
How PC 484g is punished depends on the value of the items you receive. If the amount of the money, goods, services, etc. exceeds $950 in any consecutive six-month period, the offense will be punished as grand theft. If the value is $950 or less, the offense will be punished as petty theft.14
Penal Code 484h PC involves retailer credit card fraud. Retailers violate this law when they
- furnish money, goods, services or anything else of value when someone presents a credit or debit card that the retailer knows is stolen, counterfeit, forged, expired or revoked, or
- present evidence of a credit or debit card transaction in order to receive payment when the retailer knowingly failed to provide money, goods, services or anything else of value (or provided money, goods, etc. in an amount that was less than the charged amount).15
Example: Defendants, who own a rug company, take possession of several altered credit cards. The defendants "ring up" charges for rugs that no one is actually purchasing in order to collect money from the credit card companies.16
Violations of PC 484h are punished in the same manner as 484g, above - money, goods or other services that you receive in any consecutive six-month period that total more than $950 elevate the crime to grand theft...$950 or less is petty theft.17
You violate Penal Code 484i PC when you
- possess an incomplete credit card with the intent to complete it without the consent of the issuer (an "incomplete" card is one that, for example, is missing the bank logo),
- alter, change or modify any part of the credit card, regardless of whether the change is to the face of the card or to the information contained in the card (altering the content in the magnetic stripe, for example) with the intent to defraud,
- allow another person to alter or modify the card or its account information, or
- make, possess or "traffic" (that is, sell or exchange) credit card making equipment or incomplete credit cards knowing that the recipient of the equipment or cards will make counterfeit credit / debit cards.18
The penalties for Penal Code 484i vary.19 If you possess an incomplete credit/debit card with the intent to complete it, you face a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six-months in jail and a maximum $1,000 fine.
If you alter the card or information contained within the card, the crime becomes one of forgery, punishable as a wobbler in accordance with Penal Code 470 PC noted above under Section 2.2.
If you are convicted for a violation involving card making equipment, you face a wobbler, punishable by a maximum $10,000 fine and 16 months or two or three years in prison for the felony or a maximum $1,000 fine and up to six-months in jail for the misdemeanor.
Penal Code 484j prohibits publishing any information about a credit or debit card, personal identification number, computer password, bank account information, etc. with the intent to defraud another person or entity.
You "publish" this information when you communicate it, whether orally, on a computer, or in a writing of any kind.20
Example: You know your boyfriend Rick wants a new TV, but he can't afford the one he wants. You tell Rick that he should buy it online using your roommate Jenn's credit card number. When Jenn leaves, you call Rick and give him Jenn's credit card information without her permission which he then uses to order the TV.
By supplying Rick with Jenn's account information, you violate PC 484j...and this would still be the case even if Rick decided not to use the information that you provided.
Penal Code 484j is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six-months in jail and a maximum $1,000 fine.21
Fortunately, there are a variety of California legal defenses to credit card fraud that your skilled criminal defense lawyer may present on your behalf. The following are some of the most common.
As is the case with any California fraud offense, if you don't have fraudulent intent, you aren't guilty of fraud - period. Mistake and even ignorance can excuse your otherwise criminal conduct if you are not intentionally committing...or trying to commit...a fraud.
Example: You attempt to pay for your gas with your credit card. You forgot to renew the card, and it expired last week. The gas station reports you and you are arrested on credit card fraud charges.
Because you didn't intentionally use an expired card in an effort to get free gas, you didn't have fraudulent intent. As a result, you are not guilty of this offense.
Even if you did have fraudulent intent, you may be acquitted of the charge if the prosecutor can't prove each and every element of the crime. This means that if, for example, you are accused of using a credit card that you know has been revoked, the prosecution must be able to prove that you had prior notice it was revoked. Without this critical piece of evidence, you must be found "not guilty".
Example: Teddy uses his ATM card to obtain cash from the grocery store, even though he knows the checking account to which the card is linked is overdrawn and is set to be closed. The prosecutor charges Teddy with violating Penal Code 484g PC which deals with fraudulent use of credit/debit cards.
PC 484g requires that before a defendant can be convicted of this offense, the issuer of the credit card must give the card-holder written notice that the card has been suspended or terminated. Even though Teddy personally knew this was the case, there was no evidence that the bank ever gave the required written notice that the card was suspended or terminated. As a result, Teddy was acquitted of the charge.22
And...as is the case with many fraud offenses...the alleged fraudulent conduct does not always take place in person with an eye-witness. Many instances of California credit card fraud take place "behind the scenes" so that it may not be obvious who the true culprit of the fraud is.
Mistaken identity may therefore serve as a defense to this charge. But not to worry, even if you are the victim of mistaken identity or false accusations, we can help. Our firm's experience as former police investigators and prosecutors equips us with the skills and knowledge that are essential to proving your innocence.
Because there are so many different ways to violate California's credit/debit card laws, there are a variety of punishments that coincide with each.
Generally speaking, most instances of credit card fraud are punished as forgery or as a California theft offense. And if the crime is punished as theft, it is usually the amount of the fraud that dictates whether the punishment will be that of grand theft or petty theft, though some credit card fraud violations automatically qualify as one or the other.
The exact penalties you would face for each violation are noted above under the specific section addressing the offense.
And where two or more charges could be filed in connection with the same underlying activity, you may only be convicted and sentenced on one charge.
Example: You are accused of forging another person's name on a credit card slip, which is a violation of both Penal Code 470 PC forgery and PC 484f. California law only allows you to be convicted and sentenced for one of these charges.23
Clearly, there are a variety of offenses that are closely related to California credit card fraud...most notably
- grand theft, and
all described above. But in addition, there are a number of other offenses that prosecutors commonly file in connection with or in lieu of these charges. Some of these include:
You commit identity theft when you unlawfully use another person's personal information in order to commit a fraud. Using another person's credit/debit card or account information without that person's consent therefore qualifies as identity theft.
Identity theft is punishable as a federal offense, subjecting you to substantial fines and up to 25 years in prison.24
You commit Internet fraud, not surprisingly, anytime you commit a fraud via the Internet. If you violate any of the credit card fraud laws above by using the Internet, you could face federal charges for your actions.
Common examples may include
- using someone else's credit card without authorization to make an online purchase,
- using the Internet to discretely advertise that you traffic credit card making equipment, or
- selling items purchased with a stolen credit card on the Internet for cash.
Because Internet fraud is a federal offense, it subjects you to large fines and a lengthy prison sentence.
Penal Code 459 PC California's burglary law prohibits entering a building or other structure with the intent to commit a felony or petty theft once inside.25 This means that if, for example, you enter a store intending to make your purchase with someone else's credit card or with a counterfeit credit card, you not only violate California's credit card laws, but you commit burglary as well.
Most instances of burglary that deal with credit card fraud are wobblers, punishable by up to three years in the state prison and a maximum $10,000 fine for the felony or up to one year in jail and a maximum $1,000 fine for the misdemeanor.26
Penal Code 368 PC California's elder abuse law protects elders..."elders" are persons 65 and older...from emotional, physical and financial abuse.27
If, for example, you are a caregiver for an elderly person and you use that person's credit card or debit card information, you could be prosecuted for credit card fraud and elder abuse.
Elder abuse is also a wobbler, but the possible penalties increase from a maximum three-year state prison sentence to a maximum four-year sentence for the felony or a maximum $1,000 fine to a maximum $6,000 fine for the misdemeanor.28
If you have an agreement with one or more people to engage in credit card fraud, regardless of whether the agreement is with
- a retailer who will knowingly accept your stolen card to give you merchandise,
- a person to traffic credit/debit card making equipment,
- other people to steal debit card information from a bank to make hundreds of counterfeit cards, or
- anyone else to commit any type of credit card fraud,
you may be convicted of violating California's credit/debit card fraud laws and of violating California's conspiracy laws. California's conspiracy laws penalize fraudulent crimes as wobblers, punishable by the standard 16 months or two or three years and a maximum $10,000 fine for the felony or a maximum one year in the county jail and a maximum $1,000 fine for the misdemeanor.29
Call us for help...
For questions about California's credit card fraud laws, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
Additionally, our Las Vegas Nevada criminal defense attorneys are available to answer any questions about Nevada's credit card fraud laws. For more information, we invite you to contact our local attorneys at one of our Nevada law offices, located in Reno and Las Vegas.30
1 Our California criminal defense attorneys have local Los Angeles law offices in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Pomona, Torrance, Van Nuys, West Covina, and Whittier. We have additional law offices conveniently located throughout the state in Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
2 Judicial Council of California Jury Instructions, Criminal "Calcrim" 1950 - Fraudulent intent def Someone intends to defraud if he or she intends to deceive another person either to cause a loss of (money[,]/ [or] goods[,]/ [or] services[,]/ [or] something [else] of value), or to cause damage to, a legal, financial, or property right.
4 See same.
5 California Penal Code 484e PC - Theft of access cards or account information. ("(a) Every person who, with intent to defraud, sells, transfers, or conveys, an access card, without the cardholder's or issuer's consent, is guilty of grand theft. (b) Every person, other than the issuer, who within any consecutive 12-month period, acquires access cards issued in the names of four or more persons which he or she has reason to know were taken or retained under circumstances which constitute a violation of subdivision (a), (c), or (d) is guilty of grand theft. (c) Every person who, with the intent to defraud, acquires or retains possession of an access card without the cardholder's or issuer's consent, with intent to use, sell, or transfer it to a person other than the cardholder or issuer is guilty of petty theft. (d) Every person who acquires or retains possession of access card account information with respect to an access card validly issued to another person, without the cardholder's or issuer's consent, with the intent to use it fraudulently, is guilty of grand theft.")
6 San Bernardino criminal defense attorney Michael Scafiddi uses his former experience as an Ontario Police Officer to represent clients throughout the Inland Empire including San Bernardino, Riverside, Rancho Cucamonga, Hemet, Banning, Fontana, Joshua Tree, Barstow, Palm Springs and Victorville.
7 Calcrim 1951- "It is not necessary" if the evidence shows that the defendant did not succeed in defrauding anyone. (People v. Morgan (1956) 140 Cal.App.2d 796, 801 [296 P.2d 75].)
8 People v. Molina (2004) 120 Cal.App.4th 507.
9 See PC 484e, endnote 5, above.
10 California Penal Code 484f PC - Forgery; access cards; design, alteration, or use. ("(a) Every person who, with the intent to defraud, designs, makes, alters, or embosses a counterfeit access card or utters or otherwise attempts to use a counterfeit access card is guilty of forgery. (b) A person other than the cardholder or a person authorized by him or her who, with the intent to defraud, signs the name of another or of a fictitious person to an access card, sales slip, sales draft, or instrument for the payment of money which evidences an access card transaction, is guilty of forgery.")
11 See same.
12 California Penal Code 473 PC - Forgery, punishment. ("Forgery is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison, or by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year.")
See also Penal Code 18 - California felony charges. ("Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed by any law of this state, every offense declared to be a felony, or to be punishable by imprisonment in a state prison, is punishable by imprisonment in any of the state prisons for 16 months, or two or three years; provided, however, every offense which is prescribed by any law of the state to be a felony punishable by imprisonment in any of the state prisons or by a fine, but without an alternate sentence to the county jail, may be punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year or by a fine, or by both.")
See also Penal Code 672 - Fines where none prescribed. ("Upon a conviction for any crime punishable by imprisonment in any jail or prison, in relation to which no fine is herein prescribed, the court may impose a fine on the offender not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000) in cases of misdemeanors or ten thousand dollars ($10,000) in cases of felonies, in addition to the imprisonment prescribed.")
13 California Penal Code 484g PC - Fraudulent use of access cards or account information. ("Every person who, with the intent to defraud, (a) uses, for the purpose of obtaining money, goods, services, or anything else of value, an access card or access card account information that has been altered, obtained, or retained in violation of Section 484e or 484f, or an access card which he or she knows is forged, expired, or revoked, or (b) obtains money, goods, services, or anything else of value by representing without the consent of the cardholder that he or she is the holder of an access card and the card has not in fact been issued, is guilty of theft. If the value of all money, goods, services, and other things of value obtained in violation of this section exceeds nine hundred fifty dollars ($950) in any consecutive six-month period, then the same shall constitute grand theft.")
14 See same.
15 California Penal Code 484h PC - Furnishing thing of value upon presentation of unauthorized access card; falsely presenting evidence of access card transaction. ("Every retailer or other person who, with intent to defraud: (a) Furnishes money, goods, services or anything else of value upon presentation of an access card obtained or retained in violation of Section 484e or an access card which he or she knows is a counterfeit access card or is forged, expired, or revoked, and who receives any payment therefor, is guilty of theft. If the payment received by the retailer or other person for all money, goods, services, and other things of value furnished in violation of this section exceeds nine hundred fifty dollars ($950) in any consecutive six-month period, then the same shall constitute grand theft. (b) Presents for payment a sales slip or other evidence of an access card transaction, and receives payment therefor, without furnishing in the transaction money, goods, services, or anything else of value that is equal in value to the amount of the sales slip or other evidence of an access card transaction, is guilty of theft. If the difference between the value of all money, goods, services, and anything else of value actually furnished and the payment or payments received by the retailer or other person therefor upon presentation of a sales slip or other evidence of an access card transaction exceeds nine hundred fifty dollars ($950) in any consecutive six-month period, then the same shall constitute grand theft.")
16 Facts loosely based on People v. Lugashi (1988) 205 Cal.App.3d 632.
17 See PC 484h, endnote 15, above.
18 California Penal Code 484i PC - Forgery; access cards and information; equipment to make counterfeit cards. ("(a) Every person who possesses an incomplete access card, with intent to complete it without the consent of the issuer, is guilty of a misdemeanor. (b) Every person who, with the intent to defraud, makes, alters, varies, changes, or modifies access card account information on any part of an access card, including information encoded in a magnetic stripe or other medium on the access card not directly readable by the human eye, or who authorizes or consents to alteration, variance, change, or modification of access card account information by another, in a manner that causes transactions initiated by that access card to be charged or billed to a person other than the cardholder to whom the access card was issued, is guilty of forgery. (c) Every person who designs, makes, possesses, or traffics in card making equipment or incomplete access cards with the intent that the equipment or cards be used to make counterfeit access cards, is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year, or by imprisonment in the state prison.")
19 See same.
20 California Penal Code 484j PC - Publication of access card, number or code with intent to defraud another. ("Any person who publishes the number or code of an existing, canceled, revoked, expired or nonexistent access card, personal identification number, computer password, access code, debit card number, bank account number, or the numbering or coding which is employed in the issuance of access cards, with the intent that it be used or with knowledge or reason to believe that it will be used to avoid the payment of any lawful charge, or with intent to defraud or aid another in defrauding, is guilty of a misdemeanor. As used in this section, "publishes" means the communication of information to any one or more persons, either orally, in person or by telephone, radio or television, or on a computer network or computer bulletin board, or in a writing of any kind, including without limitation a letter or memorandum, circular or handbill, newspaper or magazine article, or book.")
21 See same.
22 People v. Whight (1995) 36 Cal.App.4th 1143.
23 Calcrim 1900 - A defendant who forges the name of another on a credit card sales slip may be charged under either Penal Code section 470 or section 484f, or both. (People v. Cobb (1971) 15 Cal.App.3d 1, 4.) However, the defendant may not be convicted and sentenced on both charges for the same conduct. (Pen. Code, § 654; see also CALCRIM No. 3516, Multiple Counts: Alternative Charges for One Event-Dual Conviction Prohibited.)
25 California Penal Code 459 PC - Burglary. ("Every person who enters any house, room, apartment, tenement, shop, warehouse, store, mill, barn, stable, outhouse or other building, tent, vessel, as defined in Section 21 of the Harbors and Navigation Code, floating home, as defined in subdivision (d) of Section 18075.55 of the Health and Safety Code, railroad car, locked or sealed cargo container, whether or not mounted on a vehicle, trailer coach, as defined in Section 635 of the Vehicle Code, any house car, as defined in Section 362 of the Vehicle Code, inhabited camper, as defined in Section 243 of the Vehicle Code, vehicle as defined by the Vehicle Code, when the doors are locked, aircraft as defined by Section 21012 of the Public Utilities Code, or mine or any underground portion thereof, with intent to commit grand or petit larceny or any felony is guilty of burglary. As used in this chapter, "inhabited" means currently being used for dwelling purposes, whether occupied or not. A house, trailer, vessel designed for habitation, or portion of a building is currently being used for dwelling purposes if, at the time of the burglary, it was not occupied solely because a natural or other disaster caused the occupants to leave the premises.")
26 California Penal Code 461 PC - Burglary; punishment. ("Burglary is punishable as follows: (a) Burglary in the first degree: by imprisonment in the state prison for two, four, or six years. (b) Burglary in the second degree: by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year or in the state prison.")
28 See same.
30 Please feel free to contact our Las Vegas Nevada criminal defense attorneys Michael Becker and Mike Castillo for any questions relating to Nevada's credit card fraud laws. Our Nevada law offices are located in Reno and Las Vegas.