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Supposed that a person A used another person's credit card (B) to buy a $1 item (without permission) while A was doing B's shopping but A returned the money. Has A committed theft?

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    Did you intend to return the money from the beginning, or did you only return upon her noticing the unauthorized purchase?
    – Greendrake
    May 21, 2020 at 14:52
  • Hi Michelle, welcome to StackExchange. I encourage you to take the tour, as we are a little different from other sites. For example, please do not respond to questions with an answer, but rather edit your question or respond with a comment.
    – sharur
    May 21, 2020 at 15:09
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    Returning the money after you get caught would be weak proof of your intent to do so. We don't know the actual law because you haven't told us where you live.
    – Tiger Guy
    May 21, 2020 at 15:21
  • Why the downvotes? While the question may be a bit naive, it is a valid, well-written, on-topic question.
    – sleske
    May 22, 2020 at 12:44
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    @sleske because it's a real-world question about something happening to the OP, so it's legal advice, which is forbidden on LawSE Feb 7, 2023 at 14:51

6 Answers 6

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Depends where you are

At common law, theft (or more generally, larceny) requires an intent to permanently deprive the owner of possession.

However, many jurisdictions have removed this element from the crime. For example, s118 of the Crimes Act 1900 says:

118 Intent to return property no defence

Where, on the trial of a person for larceny, it appears that the accused appropriated the property in question to the accused's own use, or for the accused's own benefit, or that of another, but intended eventually to restore the same, or in the case of money to return an equivalent amount, such person shall not by reason only thereof be entitled to acquittal.

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    Another complication: Even if theft requires intent to permanently deprive, OP would need to prove that they intended to return the money all along. It is not enough to return the money, you need to make a credible case that you never intended to keep it. Otherwise there was "an intent to permanently deprive", you just changed your mind later.
    – sleske
    May 22, 2020 at 12:52
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In Germany, the situation is similar to the one under Common Law (as explained in Dale M's answer):

Theft (Diebstahl in the Strafgesetzbuch, the German criminal code) is defined in §242 Strafgesetzbuch as:

§242

Wer eine fremde bewegliche Sache einem anderen in der Absicht wegnimmt, die Sache sich oder einem Dritten rechtswidrig zuzueignen, [...]

Translated:

Whoever takes movable property belonging to another away from another with the intention of unlawfully appropriating it for themselves or a third party [...]

So, just as under Common Law, the crucial question is whether you intended to return the money all along. If yes, then the definition of theft is not fulfilled.

However, if you originally did not intend to return the money, but did so anyway after you found it, it would still be theft. That would be for a judge to decide. A judge would probably look a the circumstances, such as whether you returned the money after you were found out, or before.

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  • Note that the ladies movable property was not taken to unlawfully appropriate it. So the definition of theft would likely not apply. There have been cases where someone took a card, withdrew money, returned the card, and theft charges didn’t apply.
    – gnasher729
    May 23, 2020 at 14:25
  • @gnasher729: Well, as I wrote, a judge would have to decide what intentions the perpetrator had when using the card.
    – sleske
    May 23, 2020 at 17:52
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Yes, you purchased something without her permission or authorization.

Whether 1 dollar or 1000, if someone did that to you, right away you're going to be weary the next time.

Justifying an unauthorized purchase, no matter how small, will lead you to keep doing these kinds of things.

It's probably better to mention it beforehand, most of the time, people are willing to help.

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  • This is not true in a strict Common Law sense - a lack of intent to defraud vitiates guilt for larceny. Many jurisdictions have passed laws extending the scope of theft laws, though. May 21, 2020 at 15:10
  • She was fired from her job for theft, if there weren't any legitimate legal grounds to fire her, she would have a right for recourse, but she doesn't. And I agree with the not quite common law part, if there is a term for larceny but without the intent to deprive the owner of possession, that would probably fit in this situation
    – and1
    May 21, 2020 at 15:16
  • @RobertColumbia The state of Georgia has an entire code section on Illegal Use of Financial Transaction Cards. I couldn't find one entry that included intent. Obv the real answer will be specific to the jurisdiction, but in Georgia, there are probably multiple offenses that could be applied.
    – Tiger Guy
    May 21, 2020 at 15:19
  • A think the insight you make here is that the crime isn't really theft, it is fraud.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 7, 2023 at 0:20
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When "theft of money" was a property theft, involving the taking of actual physical bank notes, which could be proven by records of the serial numbers of the actual bank notes involved, there were separate crimes of

'conversion' (knowing or intentional exertion of unauthorized control over property of another person)

and of

'embezzlement' (theft or misappropriation of funds placed in one's trust),

and you could have been charged with 'exerting unauthorized control' of $1, or 'misappropriation of" $1.

Depending on your location, one or both of those crimes may have been included in a statutory re-definition of "theft".

But -- in my jurisdiction, if you thought that it wasn't theft, and you intended to return it ... then it wasn't theft. Here, the "criminal intent" of common law hasn't been removed, just replaced with a more restricted version that requires ignorance of legal technicalities as well as lack of criminal intent. That means you can get away with it here, maybe, but certainly not after you've been warned.

As it happens, there isn't any reasonable way for me to report an incidental embezzlement. I'd have to know what the actual legislation is, and who to report it to, because that information is not published by the police force here, nor known to the desk officers here, who only deal in intentional crimes. And after reporting an amount of $1, to the correct department, on the correct form, it would not be investigated, because the fraud office classifies crimes as "important" or not.

On the other hand, they got Al Capone on Tax Evasion. If they are looking for a crime to nail on you, a $1 embezzlement is a crime in a lot of places, and could cost you your job in a lot of places. Using somebody else's credit card without explicit permission is a very bad idea.

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I focus the question by pointing to the law in Washington that pertains to theft, RCW 9a.56. As you describe it, the person acquired the credit card lawfully – with permission – and used it in a manner not explicitly endorsed by the credit card owner. Under no stretch of the imagination has there been "theft of money". There was no intent to deprive the card owner of the card. Although 9A.56.060 is in the general chapter containing "theft", deliberately writing a rubber check is deemed to be "unlawful issuance of bank check", not "theft" (and clearly this has nothing to do with checks – but under a plain reading of the theft statute, this simply is not theft). RCW 9A.56.220 somewhat stretches the definition of theft in defining a crime "theft of subscription television services" (the provider is not deprived of the thing that was "taken"), but again this form of theft doesn't relate to what happens in the above scenario.

RCW 9A.56.290 becomes more relevant since it relates to credit cards inter alia, but it is specifically limited to "unlawful factoring of transactions", which is using skimmers etc to get credit card information or to present to a bank something unlawfully purporting to be a transaction between merchant and card owner. Finally, RCW 9A.56.320 defines a set of crimes like "unlawful production of payment instruments" (pertaining to checks and the like), which includes "unlawful possession of a personal identification device", where credit cards are included in the set of such devices. The crime is if one "possesses a personal identification device with intent to use such device to commit theft, forgery, or identity theft". Well, the intent is to buy some product, and the card is not being used to commit a crime".

What happened is that in using the card to purchase goods not requested by the card holder (who gave you permission to make purchases with the card) is that you caused her financial damage. You are legally liable for that damage, and she can sue you to recover her loss. But this is not a crime, in Washington.

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There's the question whether this is legally theft, whether it can be proved that it is theft, and what the consequences are.

You didn't say which country it is. That would have been important, because different countries have slightly different laws. It seems that in the USA it would be theft. And in Germany it might not be theft if you returned the money at the earliest possible time. Can it be proved (usually "beyond reasonable doubt", but that depends on the country as well) that it is theft? In the USA, easily. In Germany, if you had the intent to return the money but are found out the next day, or a week later, or you forgot about returning the money altogether, a court could assume that it was theft "beyond reasonable doubt".

On the other hand, for a theft of one dollar or one euro both police and courts would likely not be interested in hearing the case whatsoever. But on the other hand again, that doesn't mean you can't get fired for it. And if you went to court saying you were fired illegally, the court will likely side with the employer.

And since you didn't mention the country, we haven't talked about countries with shariah law where you might lose much, much more than just your job.

So in the USA: Don't do it. In Egypt: Absolutely don't even think about doing it. In Germany: Don't do it. And if you do it, don't wait a minute longer than necessary to return the money.

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