Can a minor be charged for credit card theft?

If a thief uses a stolen card without the owner’s permission, that is fraud

Dear Opening Credits,
If a minor steals a credit card from someone else, what charges might he face? – Shadrick

Dear Shadrick,

Anyone who takes someone else’s property with the intent of not returning it commits theft. Theft is the umbrella term that is used both in and outside the courtroom and would apply to a person of any age.

If a thief uses a credit card to purchase anything without the card owner’s permission, that is fraud.

“Credit card fraud is the unauthorized use of a credit or debit card, or similar payment tool, to fraudulently obtain money or property,” according to the FBI.

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Penalties vary by state and value of stolen property

I can give only general information because the laws and repercussions vary by state. Discuss this matter with an attorney who practices law in your state for more precise information.

Depending on the dollar value of the stolen property, the crime would be classified by penal code.

Penal codes are, from least to most serious:

  • Infraction. For very low amounts. Punishment can include a fine.
  • Misdemeanor. For amounts that are under the state’s felony threshold (usually around a $1,000). Punishment can include a fine or short stay in jail.
  • Felony. For amounts over the state’s felony threshold. Punishment can be a prison sentence.

“Penal codes apply to anyone, regardless of the person’s age,” says Gregory Rubel, a criminal defense lawyer from the Los Angeles area. “For minors, the court will make the decision about what happens. The value of what was taken and what it was used for is considered.”

However, that doesn’t mean that a child who swipes a credit card to buy a bunch of video games will experience any harsh consequences. There is an important difference between penalties for minors versus those for adults. For people under the age of 18, rehabilitation is the primary focus.

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If taken to court, a minor may face “a slap on the wrist, such as having to do community service or be required to get some counseling for psychological issues,” says Rubel. “For an adult, it’s about punishment.”

Theft of any kind should have consequences

It is essential for parents and guardians to convey the seriousness of these crimes to their underage children.

If you are writing because your teenager has taken your credit card, decide now what would be a reasonable but impactful consequence. Removing electronics for a lengthy period of time, grounding him from nonschool-related activities, or having him deep-clean a filthy garage might be a good penalty.

If he went on a spending spree with your card, have him pay you back, and consider adding on a financial penalty. Return all purchased merchandise, too. These were ill-gotten goods and he has no right to keep them.

If your child stole someone else’s card, you might want to have him admit what he did and ask for forgiveness.

In the event the victim is pursuing criminal charges, you can try to intervene with a meeting between the victim, your son and you. What happens after that is up to the person whose credit card was stolen, and if it goes that far, the judge.

Whatever the case, I urge you not to minimize this situation. Credit card theft and fraud are not trivial crimes.

On the other hand, if you are the minor who stole the credit card, take positive action immediately. Return the card and communicate with the victim. Apologize, then ask what you can do to make amends. And never, ever, do it again.

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