Credit card theft is a serious crime that costs credit card companies millions of dollars every year. These companies typically past the costs onto consumers in the form of added fees and increased interest rates. Because the societal cost of credit card theft is so high, both consumers whose cards are stolen and credit card companies have an interest in prosecuting credit card theft cases, and thieves may face stiff penalties.
Types of Theft
Credit card theft can occur when an actual card is stolen, such as when a mugger steals your wallet. But it can also occur when the credit card is still in your possession. Identity thieves can obtain your credit card number from credit card statements, from financial documents or by looking over your shoulder and writing down your credit card number. This form of theft often goes undetected much longer because consumers may not realize their credit cards have been stolen until they receive their card statements in the mail.
Many states impose fines on credit card thieves. These fines are intended not only to act as a deterrent but also to balance the costs of prosecuting credit card theft cases. Some states use these fines to help fund consumer affairs bureaus that work to prevent identity theft and fraud. State fines vary, but they can be quite steep. In Georgia, for example, the fine is up to $5,000.
Jail or prison time are perhaps the most serious penalties for credit card theft. First offenders and people who steal a small amount may escape with probation time or diversion programs. However, when the theft is deliberate, involves fraud or costs consumers or banks thousands of dollars, jail time becomes much more likely. Sentencing is up to the judge or jury depending on the facts of the case, but prison sentences can be significant in the most serious cases. Misdemeanor penalties are common when small amounts are stolen. A misdemeanor penalty is a sentence of a year or less in jail. Florida, for example, allows for a sentence of up to five years in prison if the credit card is used more than three times in six months or if the amount charged to the credit card exceeds $100.
Credit card thieves may face civil lawsuits to recover the money they have stolen, any costs associated with the theft and attorney's fees. It's typically the credit card companies that sue, as they incur the greatest financial loss in most cases. When credit card holders suffer financially as a result of credit card theft -- such as late penalties, over-limit fees or attorney's fees -- they may also sue.
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.