Using Somebody Else's Card: The Consequences

Permission Helps, but It's Still Against the Rules

Woman on phone in shop, looking at a credit card.
Retailers may notice a problem. Mark Edward Atkinson / Getty Images

Credit and debit cards are handy tools for payment. They can be used online or in person, and it’s easy to use somebody else’s card. In fact, cards often get passed around, stolen, or otherwise used in ways that weren’t intended.

But credit cards are printed with an authorized cardholder’s name. If anybody else uses the card, the card user or cardholder faces serious problems.

Unauthorized Use

Fraudulent or unauthorized use is obviously a problem.

If your card gets used without your permission:

  1. Report the problem to your card issuer immediately. Your card issuer is the company that you applied for the card with. If you have a debit card, you can contact your bank. Notifying the card issuer should prevent things from getting worse, and it maximizes your protection under federal law. The longer you wait, the more your liability increases.
  2. Report the unauthorized activity to police. To make a claim with your card issuer, you may need to file a police report and provide a copy of the report. The individual who used the card may face criminal charges (more on that below).

Using a Card With Permission

What happens when you use somebody else’s card with permission (or you allow somebody to use your card)? Even with permission, this is against the card issuer’s rules, so the account holder is breaking the agreement they signed with the issuer.

Most of the time, nobody will notice or care, but you should be aware that it’s technically against the rules. When you consider how easy it is to make self-service payments at gas pumps or online stores, it's not surprising that cards are often used by friends, spouses, employees, and others.

If your bank or credit card company finds out that you’re lending out your card, there’s a chance that your account will be closed.

Unexpected charges: Lending out your card is risky. There’s no guarantee that the card will only be used in the way you intended. It’s hard to recover funds if you let somebody use your card because the usage was not unauthorized. Banks won’t reimburse you if somebody drains your account at an ATM after you give them permission to use your card and the PIN.

Risk for “borrowers”: Using somebody else’s card is risky. Nobody really knows if you got permission ahead of time, so the default assumption may be that you’re committing fraud. If a merchant asks for identification and you can’t provide it, things might get complicated—the card might be taken away, the police might get involved, and so on. What’s more, the person who gave you the card can later claim that you took it without permission (if you spend too much, for example, or if your relationship sours). In many cases, transaction records and store surveillance video can be used to bring charges against you.

Get permission in writing: If you must use somebody else’s card, which you simply shouldn’t do, at least get a signed note from the cardholder saying you have permission to do so. Keep the note tucked away unless you really need it.

If you use the card at a store, the merchant does not want to know that you have somebody else's card—they're risking a chargeback, and stores stand to lose money unless the authorized cardholder made the purchase.

Get authorized: Instead of using somebody else’s credit card or lending out your card, take advantage of “authorized users.” At an account holder’s request, credit card issuers will provide additional cards with somebody else’s name. The account still belongs to the primary cardholder, who is responsible for the payment, but the authorized user is allowed to use the account. If that user is asked for identification, everything will match correctly.

Using Cards Without Permission?

When permission is not given, using somebody else’s debit or credit card is a form of identity theft. States are broadening definitions of what constitutes ID theft, and penalties for those activities are getting more severe.

The details vary from state to state, so visit with a local attorney if you have questions regarding your particular situation.

In many states, possession of somebody else’s card is illegal. Possession of multiple cards—or other financial tools listed below—can easily bring the crime into felony territory (if it wasn’t already a felony). In addition to criminal charges from the state, you may have to pay restitution to account holders and other victims.

If you’ve got your hands on somebody else’s cards, you’re playing with fire. It doesn’t matter what you intend to use the cards for—if you can’t prove that you have permission, you’ve got problems. That means you can’t “borrow” with intentions to repay the cardholder, and you can’t even use the card for benefits that won’t cost the cardholder any money. For example, you can’t show the card for free access to cardholder events or services, or use the card to purchase goods that you’ll return before the bill is due.

Likewise, it doesn’t matter how you got possession of the cards—if they were sent to you in error or if you found them on the street, for example, you never intended to steal them. However, it’s a bad idea to hang onto anything that might make you look like an identity thief. Drop cards off with local police, the lost and found wherever you found the cards, or at a bank that issued the cards.

Beyond Cards

Debit and credit cards are not the only way to trigger identity theft charges. Many states outlaw the unauthorized possession of any “financial transaction device,” such as:

It may also be illegal to possess information that can be used for access to accounts and account information such as:

  • Usernames and passwords
  • Social Security Numbers
  • An individual’s mother’s maiden name (you might know this about anybody, so the facts and circumstances are important — a spreadsheet with this information is, of course, more problematic than your casual knowledge of a friend’s family)
  • Other personal information

Finally, it’s generally illegal to possess tools for financial identity theft, such as card skimmers and similar equipment.