The penalties for credit card fraud in California can vary depending on the circumstances and severity of the case. On the low end, it is a year in county jail and a $1,000 fine. On the high end, it is punishable by up to three years in county jail and a $10,000 fine.

Credit card fraud is also a federal offense. You might be charged by a federal prosecutor if you have been accused of credit card fraud across state lines or fraud against the government. In this case, the penalty can be as high as 20 years prison time.

Credit Card Fraud in California

In California, it is illegal to knowingly use a credit card or a credit card’s information (number, owner’s name, billing information) to deceive a person or entity into suffering a loss, while you receive an undeserved gain.

This covers everything from skimming credit cards to using your own expired credit card with the intent of never paying the balance.

How these situations are prosecuted depends on the specifics of the case.

  • Fraudulent possession and transfer of a credit card (484e PC) — When you knowingly receive, sell or give someone a credit card without the true owner’s consent. This is prosecuted as grand theft in California, which is a “wobbler,” meaning that it can be punished as either a felony or misdemeanor. The misdemeanor carries up to a year in county jail and a $1,000 fine, while the felony carries a sentence up to three years and a $10,000 fine.
  • Forging credit card information (484f PC) — If you alter a debit card, produce a counterfeit one or sign someone else’s name during a transaction without their consent, you can be charged with fraud. This is also a “wobbler,” so it will be prosecuted as a felony or misdemeanor based on your criminal history and the facts of the case. The punishments here are the same as fraudulent possession.
  • Fraudulent use of an access card or account information (484g PC) — Using a stolen, altered, counterfeit, forged, expired or revoked credit or debit card to obtain money, goods or services of value. This is punished based on the value of the items received. If the amount is under $950 in a six-month period, this will be punished as petty theft (six months jail time, $1,000 fine). If it exceeds $950, it will be charged as grand theft.
  • Fraudulent retail transactions (484h PC) — This is when you use an altered, stolen, expired, etc., credit card that the retailer knows is phony to complete a transaction for no exchange of goods. In this case, it allows the retailer to pocket the money from the transaction without exchanging anything in return. It is treated similarly to fraudulent use: Damages under $950 are prosecuted as petty theft; damages above $950 are grand theft.
  • Counterfeiting credit cards (484i PC) — Altering, changing or modifying any part of a credit card with the intent to deceive. This also includes allowing another person to alter a card, as well as trafficking in altered cards. This is charged as forgery in the state of California, so it is treated as a “wobbler,” as described above.
  • Publishing credit card information (484j PC) — “Publishing” is defined very broadly in California as any communication: verbal, written or digital. As well, it is illegal to communicate any information related to credit card or bank account information, from ATM PINs to debit card numbers. This is punished as a misdemeanor, with a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

It’s possible to be charged with one or a combination of these, depending on the specifics of your case.

Federal Credit Card Fraud

It’s also possible to be charged on the federal level, if the alleged crime happened on government property, against a government entity or happened across state lines.

All of the situations above are illegal in federal law (Title 18 U.S.C. 1029), and the US Government can prosecute them if it falls under their jurisdiction. These cases are investigated by federal agencies like the FBI and Federal Trade Commission, and prosecuted much more strictly.

The maximum penalty here is a 20 years in prison, and fines can vary depending on the specifics of the case.

Defenses Against Credit Card Fraud Charges

The critical piece to any credit card fraud case is that the defendant must knowingly commit the fraudulent act with intent to deceive.

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A successful defense can be as simple as proving that the defendant unknowingly used a roommate’s credit card if they use the same bank and the cards look similar. There are also reporting requirements for card issuers — it might not be credit card fraud to use a revoked credit card if the bank has not sent written notification that it has been revoked. In this case, there’s no way to prove that the defendant knowingly used an expired card.

Credit card fraud can carry heavy penalties and severely disrupt your ability to live your life. If you have been charged with credit card fraud, it’s important to reach out to a qualified criminal defense attorney as quickly as possible, so you can begin building your defense.

Especially in federal cases, where prosecutors might have had months to collect evidence, a criminal defense attorney can help you navigate this situation and protect yourself. My firm specializes in felonies, white collar crimes and federal crimes, and we are available 24/7 to take your case. Call today —  310-834-6434.