Card Declined: The Credit Card Fraud – Crime Sentencing Transaction

The Issue

Wire fraud, an intentional act to defraud another individual or entity of property (usually money) through electronic means, is becoming an increasingly common and widespread crime in the United States. According to a study by Javelin Strategy & Research in partnership with LifeLock, Inc., approximately 15.4 million consumers were victims of identity theft or fraud in 2016, up 16 percent from 2015, and more than ever recorded by the firm. Obtaining credit card numbers, encoding them on blank cards, and making purchases or withdrawals from automated teller machines (ATMs) has become a favorite medium of crime among fraudsters. When determining how a perpetrator of wire fraud should be sentenced for possessing credit cards that are canceled, expired or attached to an account from which all funds have been successfully siphoned, a key issue is whether the “access device” is in fact usable by the perpetrator.

The Split

Credit cards that have been encoded with stolen numbers and used fraudulently are governed by 18 U.S.C. § 1029(e)(1) and (e)(3). Of particular importance, Application Note 3(F)(i) of § 2B1.1 of the sentencing guidelines says in cases involving “unauthorized access devices,” in this case credit cards, “loss includes any unauthorized charges made with the counterfeit access device.”

The Ninth Circuit ruled on this issue in 2012, when it considered United States v. Onyesoh, which explored access device fraud under 18 U.S.C. § 1029 and whether the government must prove the usability of an expired credit card number in order for a district court to increase the severity of a sentence. In Onyesoh, the Ninth Circuit held that unauthorized access devices must be usable:

An “unauthorized access device” must be an “access device,” which itself must be capable of obtaining “money, goods, services, or any other thing of value.” 18 U.S.C. § 1029(e)(1) and (e)(3). The statute’s language is clear and we give it full effect—unauthorized access devices are a subset of access devices, and therefore must be capable of obtaining something of value…The statute is intended to target major fraud operations instead of individual [fraud]…But the kind of devices potentially covered by the statute says nothing about the quantum of proof necessary to establish usability. The legislative history simply does not address that issue. No court, in this or any other circuit, has read usability out of the statute.

But in deciding United States v. Popovski at the end of 2017, the Seventh Circuit changed the score. Judge Easterbrook adopted the Sixth Circuit’s 2015 decision in United States v. Moon, arguing that the statute and note must be read together:

[T]he definition of “unauthorized access device” in § 1029(e)(3) includes “any access device that is lost, stolen, expired, revoked, canceled, or obtained with intent to defraud”. This necessarily implies that a card, number, or other identifier with a potential to obtain goods or initiate a transfer of funds remains an “access device” even if it is “expired, revoked, [or] canceled.” These two statutory paragraphs can work together only if paragraph (1) defines an “access device” according to its nature—the sort of thing that could in principle be used to get goods or funds, whether or not it would work in practice…. If a calculation under Application Note 3(F)(i) overstates the seriousness of the offense, a district judge must adjust accordingly. That process, rather than warping the language of § 1029(e), is the way to avoid the Ninth Circuit’s parade of horribles.

While the Ninth Circuit’s decision was likely predicated on a desire to prevent obtuse sentences for criminals who possessed but did not use expired credit card numbers, Judge Easterbrook’s scathing critique of the Ninth Circuit made clear that the Seventh Circuit, like the Sixth Circuit, will not cut financial criminals any sentencing slack:

Like the panel in Onyesoh, we too think that a district judge should not increase a sentence just because the defendant possessed ancient pieces of plastic or lists of numbers useful only during the reign of Xerxes. But we disagree with Onyesoh’s view that this result should be achieved by treating the language in § 1029(e)(3) as irrelevant to the meaning of “access device”. Courts must read the statute to reconcile these paragraphs.

Looking Forward 

After a new sentencing hearing, the Ninth Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court denied Onyesoh’s petition for a writ of certiorari.  Certiorari is currently pending for Popovski, but the Supreme Court has not expressed interest in ruling on the case in the current session.

Judge Easterbrook, in deciding United States v. Popovski, came down hard on the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of the sentencing law regarding this sort of wire fraud. He argued, in part, that district judges can come to a workable resolution under the current law without disregarding any specific portion of the statute. Following Judge Easterbrook’s logic, it seems unlikely that this issue will pique the Supreme Court’s interest. Nevertheless, if credit card fraud continues to rise at record levels and continues to emerge as the cause celebre of the consumer crime world, constituent pressure may push Congress to act.