The Crime of Identity Theft
The unauthorized use, or even possession, of someone else's personal identifying information can result in a charge of identity theft.
As the world becomes increasingly digitized, more people are using the personal information of others to commit crimes such as identity theft. Identity theft is a crime that occurs when someone uses a victim’s personal information to pose as the victim in order to obtain goods, services, or anything else of value.
The Federal Trade Commission reports that in 2009 approximately 13.9 million Americans had their identities stolen. The amount of money lost to identity theft measures in the billions of dollars every year, and about one out of every 20 consumers will have their identities stolen this year. Identity theft even extends beyond the grave, as some thieves take the identities of deceased victims.
Identity theft, though very common, is a relatively new crime. In the past, states categorized this type of behavior as false impersonation, forgery, theft by deception, or by other crimes. Today, some states still use these laws to punish identity theft crimes, while other states have enacted specific identity theft laws that target this type of behavior.
Identity Theft Crimes
Identity thieves target specific forms of personal identity. They use sensitive personal information, such as your Social Security Number, bank account numbers, email passwords, and credit card numbers to their own benefit.
For example, a common scam might involve phoning you and claiming to be a representative of your bank. The caller asks you to “confirm” your bank account details by providing your social security number, date of birth, and other important details. A week after providing this information, you learn that someone has emptied your account of all its money. A couple of months later you also find out that someone used your information to obtain credit cards under your name. You now have no money in the bank and owe $10,000 on credit cards you never applied for. You are the victim of identity theft.
State identity theft laws cover a wide range of behaviors. At their heart, these crimes all involve someone using your personal information without your consent for their own purposes or gain. Identity theft can occur when:
- Someone working for your bank accesses your account information and sells it to a buyer.
- A stranger sees you drop your credit card and decides to pick it up and use it to buy something.
- Someone sends you an email posing as the IRS, ordering you to submit your personal information or be audited.
- Someone uses a computer to access your email account, find personal information in your emails, and use that information to open a cell phone account.
- Your local garbage collector finds some of your personal documents in the trash and uses the information to obtain a credit card.
Personal Identifying Information
One key piece to identity theft crimes is the use of specific kinds of information, commonly known as personal identifying information. Though state definitions differ slightly, personal identifying information includes your name, date of birth, credit card numbers, SSN, financial records, credit report data, state identification or driver’s license numbers, telephone numbers, addresses, names of relatives, photographs, or anything else that you can use to identify yourself.
You can commit identity fraud even if you never actually benefit from your actions. Identity theft occurs when you obtain, possess, or use someone else’s information with the intent to later fraudulently use that information to your benefit.
For example, let’s say you are a waiter and a customer gives you a credit card to pay the bill. If you write down the credit card numbers with the intent to later use them to purchase something for yourself, you have committed identity theft even if you never actually buy anything.
Like all criminal laws, identity theft laws differ from state to state, and there are also federal identity theft laws that have their own penalties. Being convicted of an identity theft crime can lead to one or more of the following penalties:
- Incarceration. A conviction for an identity theft crime can result in a significant incarceration sentence. In general, a conviction for misdemeanor offense can lead to up to a year in jail, while felony sentences can result in several years or more in prison.
- Fines. It’s common for courts to order someone convicted of identity theft pay a fine. Misdemeanor fines can sometimes reach in excess of $1,000, while felony fines can easily exceed $5,000.
- Restitution. If the identity theft results in a victim losing money or suffering financial harm, courts will also typically order restitution. Restitution is designed to compensate the victim for his or her loss, while fines are designed to penalize the perpetrator. Restitution awards vary, depending on the circumstances of each case.
- Probation. For first-time offenders of identity theft crimes that do not result in significant harm, it’s possible a court might impose a probation sentence in addition to, or separate from, other penalties. Probation usually lasts at least a year, but sentences of three or more years are also common. People on probation have to comply with specific court imposed restrictions, such as reporting to a probation officer, paying all restitution and fines, and not committing other crimes.
Being charged with an identity theft crime is a very serious situation. Depending on your circumstances, being convicted of identity theft can lead to large fines and years or more in prison. Talking to a local criminal defense attorney as soon as you learn that you are being investigated for, or charged with, an identity theft crime is essential to protecting your rights throughout the criminal justice process. An area lawyer who has experience with identity theft cases and who has represented clients in local courts is the only person capable of giving you legal advice about your case.
Identity Theft Laws by State
Follow the links below to find information in your state regarding identity theft laws.
For more on identity theft laws, see the following.