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.

Identity theft 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. It's a crime that nearly one in five people in the U.S. have experienced in their lifetime. The amount of money lost to identity theft measures in the billions of dollars every year.

All states criminalize identity theft, and many increase penalties when identity theft targets vulnerable individuals, such as the elderly or people under guardianships.

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.

An identity thief might use your personal information to apply for a credit card, set up a wireless device plan, get medical care, steal your tax refund, or give your information to a police officer if arrested or pulled over.

Criminal Behavior

State identity theft laws cover a wide range of behaviors. At their core, these crimes all involve someone using your personal identifying information without your consent for their own purposes or gain. Identity theft can occur when:

  • Someone steals your wallet or purse to obtain your personal information and credit cards.
  • A stranger sees you drop your credit card and decides to pick it up and use it to buy something.
  • Someone steals your driver's license and gives it to a police officer when pulled over for a speeding ticket, or worse, when arrested.
  • Someone sends you an email posing as the IRS and directs you to submit your personal information or be audited.
  • Someone uses a computer to access your email account and find personal identifying information in your emails.
  • Someone steals your mail or goes through your garbage looking for bills or statements that contain your personal information and account numbers.

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 generally includes your name, date of birth, credit card numbers, Social Security number, financial records, credit report data, state identification or driver’s license numbers, telephone numbers, financial account numbers, addresses, names of relatives, photographs, or anything else you can use to identify yourself.

Fraudulent Intent

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.

Let’s say you're a waiter and a customer gives you a credit card to pay the bill. If you write down or scan the credit card number intending to use it later to purchase something, you've committed identity theft even if you never actually buy anything.

Penalties

Like all criminal laws, identity theft laws differ from state to state, and there are also federal 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 time spent in jail or prison. In general, a conviction for a misdemeanor offense can lead to up to a year in jail, while felony sentences can result in several years or more in prison. Similar to theft crimes, the possible sentence for identity theft often increases as the amount stolen increases.
  • 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 the defendant to pay restitution to the victim. Restitution is designed to compensate the victim for his or her loss, while fines are designed to penalize the perpetrator. Because it can take an identity theft victim significant time and effort to recover from identity theft (repair credit reports, shut down accounts), some states require defendants pay a minimum amount in restitution even if the victim suffered no direct financial loss.
  • 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 probation 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.
  • Aggravating factors. Some states increase penalties when the identity thief targeted an elderly person or a vulnerable individual, especially if the defendant was in a caretaking capacity. Other aggravating factors can include identity theft from multiple victims, a deceased individual, or a child.

Talk to a Lawyer

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. Talk to a criminal defense attorney if you are being investigated for, or charged with, an identity theft crime. A lawyer can protect your rights throughout the criminal justice process.

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