Credit Card Fraud, Definitions and Penalties

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Credit card fraud can be a stand-alone offense or be a charge that is made in conjunction with other state or federal charges. Individuals convicted of credit card fraud face serious consequences.

Types of Credit Card Fraud

There are a variety of ways that credit card fraud can be committed. This term encompasses a number of different criminal acts. However, the commonality in the crimes is that the defendant used a credit card in a fraudulent manner in order to obtain goods or services with the intent to avoid paying for them.

One common way this crime is committed is when a person steals the card that a person has recently applied for. This crime may coincide with mail fraud or theft charges because the individual often steals the card from the individual’s mailbox. Alternatively, he offender may contact the credit card account and change the mailing address. He or she may then request a new card at the new address.

Another common form of mail fraud is application fraud. This occurs when a person uses another’s identifying information in order to acquire a credit card. This crime can be commited when the offender has enough information about the victim to complete an application for the credit card. However, the offender may provide false information including employment information, phone number and address in order to qualify for credit as well as to evade detection by the real person.

A fraud spree may occur when the offender makes unauthorized charges on existing accounts, often on multiple accounts. Sometimes a credit card is stolen and used to make unauthorized purchases.

A more sophisticated version of credit card fraud involves the reproduction, counterfeit or alteration of cards. These cards use the same numbers as legitimate cards and are often difficult to detect.

In some instances of credit card fraud, the crime is committed when someone gives a merchant an unauthorized credit card number.

Identity Theft

In many instances, credit card fraud is one component of identity theft. This crime occurs when a person’s identifying or financial information is used for financial gain. In some cases, this theft may go on for years. Identity theft charges may arise on the state or federal level. Depending on the severity of the crime and the economic impact on the victim, identity theft may be charged as a misdemeanor or felony offense.

Other Crimes

Committing credit card fraud may implicate other crimes. For example, computer fraud may also be present when someone steals data in order to commit identity theft, accesses protected computers in an unauthorized manner, or installs malicious software or other harmful viruses in order to receive financial gain.

Elements of Credit Card Fraud

If someone is prosecuted for credit card fraud, the prosecuting attorney has the duty to prove that the defendant committed each element of the crime by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The elements are laid out in the state or federal charge that the defendant is facing. However, commonly the elements of credit card fraud include:

1) The defendant fraudulently obtains or forges another person’s name on a credit card application or credit card transaction;

2) The defendant uses his or her own credit card knowing that it is expired, revoked or lacks sufficient funds to pay for the merchandise; or

3) The defendant sells goods or services to another knowing that the card used for the transaction was illegally obtained or was being used in an unauthorized manner.

Defenses to Credit Card Fraud

Many times, the best defense to a criminal charge is to show that the prosecution has not proven one of the essential elements of the offense. For example, if credit card fraud charges are made against a store owner for accepting an unauthorized card, one defense may be that the defendant did not have the requisite mens rea, meaning “knowing” in this particular case, that the card was unauthorized. If a person has authorized another to use his or her card, the element requiring forgery may not stand.

Legal Assistance

Individuals who are facing credit card fraud or identity theft charges may wish to contact a criminal defense lawyer in order to protect their legal rights. A lawyer can advise a defendant on what steps to take to avoid self-incrimination. Additionally, he or she can explore any applicable defenses and work to reduce any possible sentencing.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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