Identity Theft

Identity theft is a term used to refer to fraud that involves someone pretending to be someone else in order to steal money or get other benefits.  Identity theft is a crime.  Identity theft and identity fraud are terms used to refer to all types of crime in which someone wrongfully obtains and uses another person’s personal data in some way that involves fraud or deception, typically for economic gain.

Identity theft is different from identity fraud.  Identity fraud is the result of identity theft.  Someone can steal or appropriate someone”s identifying information without actually committing identity fraud.

In the United States and Canada many people have reported that unauthorized persons have taken funds out of their bank or financial accounts, or taken over their identities altogether, running up vast debts and committing crimes while using the victim’s name.  In many cases, a victim’s losses may include not only out-of-pocket financial losses, but substantial additional financial costs associated with trying to restore his reputation in the community and correcting erroneous information for which the criminal is responsible.

The Internet has made it easier for an identity thief to use the information they have stolen because transactions can be made without any personal interaction.  Although an identity thief might crack into a database to obtain personal information, it is more likely the thief would obtain information by using old-fashioned methods.  Dumpster diving or retrieving personal paperwork and discarded mail from trash dumpsters, is one of the easiest ways for an identity thief to get information.  Another popular method to get information is shoulder surfing – the identity thief simply stands next to someone at a public office,  and watches as the person fills out personal information on a form.

The Department of Justice prosecutes cases of identity theft and fraud under a variety of federal statutes.  In 1998, Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act.  This legislation created a new offense of identity theft, which prohibits knowingly transferring or using, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of Federal law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable State or local law.  This offense, in most circumstances, carries a maximum term of 15 years’ imprisonment, a fine, and criminal forfeiture of any personal property used or intended to be used to commit the offense.

Schemes to commit identity theft or fraud may also involve violations of other statutes such as identification fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1028), credit card fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1029), computer fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1030), mail fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1341), wire fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1343), or financial institution fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1344). Each of these federal offenses is a felony that carries substantial penalties, in some cases, as high as 30 years’ imprisonment, fines, and criminal forfeiture.  Federal prosecutors work with federal investigative agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Secret Service, and the United States Postal Inspection Service to prosecute identity theft and fraud cases.


Inside Identity Theft