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. For example, someone rummages through your garbage and steals an envelope with some old tax records, finding your Social Security number, birth date, and other sensitive information. They use this information to open a credit card in your name.
The following is a summary of the crime of identity fraud or theft, including pertinent laws and penalties for offenses.
Identity Theft Laws
Identity theft laws in most states make it a crime to misuse another person's identifying information -- whether personal or financial. Such data (including Social Security numbers, credit history, and PIN numbers) is often acquired through:
Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the nation, robbing its victims of time, money and peace of mind. Identity thieves often use the Internet but also can obtain sensitive personal data from trash cans and other unsecured locations.
Because of the rise of identity theft and it's harmful consequences, Congress passed a law in 1998 making it a federal crime. Under the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, it is a federal crime when a person "knowingly transfers or uses, 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 law was followed by the Theft Penalty Enhancement Act in 2004 which increased penalties for "aggravated" identity theft, requiring courts to impose additional sentences of two years for general offenses and 5 years for terrorism related offenses.
Several government agencies are involved in investigating and prosecuting identity theft crimes, including the:
The FTC in particular helps to coordinate among other federal agencies and provides resources to law enforcement, consumers and businesses.
Clueless Identity Theft
Unlike a robbery or burglary, identity theft often occurs without the victim's knowledge. Most identity theft victims only find out after they see strange charges on their credit card statements or apply for a loan. While prevention is always the best policy, sometimes personal information is exposed through security breaches at banks or companies with which you do business. Thus, identity theft can happen to even well-prepared consumers.
While your fingerprints are unique to you and can't be given to someone else for their use, your personal data can be used, if it falls into the wrong hands, to personally profit at your expense.
In one notorious case of identity theft, the criminal, a convicted felon, incurred more than $100,000 of credit card debt, obtained a federal home loan, and bought homes, motorcycles, and handguns in the victim's name. He even called his victim to taunt him. The criminal served a brief sentence for making a false statement to procure a firearm, but made no restitution to his victim for any of the harm he had caused. Cases like this one are what ultimately prompted Congress to make identity theft a federal crime.
Get Legal Help with Your Identity Fraud Case
Identity theft laws vary from state to state and as you can see there are also federal laws that apply. To understand the laws in your area and any potential criminal liability, contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer near you.