If knowledge is power, knowledge of a person's identifying information is a power that can easily be abused by criminals. These criminals impersonate others for profit.
Identity theft and identity fraud cover all types of crime where someone wrongfully obtains and uses another person's personal data in some way that involves fraud or deception. This is typically done for economic gain.
For example, an identity thief might rummage through the garbage and steal somebody's old tax records. They might also steal someone's credit reports. By doing so, they might obtain that person's Social Security number and bank account information. In rummaging through trash, they might also obtain a person's birth date and other sensitive information. Then, the crook could use this information to open credit cards or take out loans in someone else's name, with no intention of ever paying the money back.
This is classic identity theft. It lines the thief's pockets while ruining the victim's credit report. In this way, identity theft often involves financial institutions and financial loss.
The following is a summary of the crime of identity theft and related fraud, including relevant legislation and examples of the crime.
Identity Theft Laws
Identity theft laws in most states make it a crime to misuse another person's identifying information. Under most state laws, it does not matter if that information is personal or financial in nature. Such data (including Social Security numbers, credit history, and banking PINs) are often acquired through:
- The offender's unlawful access to information from government and financial entities
- Lost or stolen mail, wallets and purses, identification, and credit or debit cards
Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the nation. It robs its victims of time, money, and peace of mind. Identity thieves often use the internet. But they can also obtain sensitive personal data from scams, database hacks, trash cans, and other unsecured locations.
Depending on where you're located and the nature of the crime, identity theft can be treated as either a misdemeanor or a felony. In Illinois, for example, first-time offenders face misdemeanor charges. Under many circumstances, under federal law, the offense can be treated as a felony, as indicated by the Department of Justice. Depending on how the offense is executed, a person could also be charged with wire fraud, mail fraud, or a variety of other offense types. The offense could involve credit card fraud, as well.
The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act
Because of the rise of identity theft and the harmful consequences for its victims, Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act in 1998. This law made it a federal crime to steal a person's identity. Under the 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." (The text of this Act may be found in 18 USC 1028.)
In general, the misuse of a person's sensitive information for a variety of unlawful purposes often constitutes a federal offense. The use of a person's information to steal that person's identity constitutes such an offense under this Act.
To commit such an offense, a person must steal another person's name along with a variety of other pieces of information. Such other information can include a person's social security number, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, or date of birth. It can include a variety of identification documents and identification numbers, such as a person's driver's license number. It can be any kind of personal identifying information.
The Theft Penalty Enhancement Act of 2004
This law was followed by the Theft Penalty Enhancement Act in 2004. This Act increased penalties for aggravated identity theft. It required courts to impose additional sentences of two years for general offenses. It also required courts to impose sentences of five years for terrorism-related offenses.
The Identity Theft Enforcement and Restitution Act
In 2008, Congress passed the Identity Theft Enforcement and Restitution Act. This Act expanded the scope of prosecution and increased the amount of restitution available for victims.
Who Prosecutes Identity Theft?
Several government agencies are involved in investigating and prosecuting identity theft crimes. These agencies include the:
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
- Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
- Secret Service
- Postal Inspection Service
- Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
- Department of Justice (DOJ)
The FTC, in particular, helps coordinate investigations. The FTC provides resources to law enforcement, consumers, and businesses.
Despite the increased focus from federal agencies, the vast majority of these crimes are prosecuted by state and local agencies. They are prosecuted according to their respective state laws. Possible charges include theft by deception, fraud, or misuse of identification.
Unsuspecting Victims of 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 when they 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 the victims do business. Thus, identity theft can happen even to well-prepared consumers.
In one case of identity theft, the owner of an auto dealership in Springfield, MO, used his legitimate business as a means of obtaining customers' personal information. He used the information he gathered from people interested in car loans to collect nearly $800,000 in fraudulent loans.
Get Legal Help With Your Identity Fraud Case
This area of criminal law can be a complicated one. Identity theft laws vary from state to state. Sometimes, even federal laws can apply to identity theft scams. To understand the laws in your area and any potential criminal liability, contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer near you.
White-collar crimes like these carry serious penalties, and law enforcement agencies give these crimes a lot of attention. In cases of federal identity theft, federal prosecutors often seek the harshest of penalties. Identity theft cases are often hard to fight, and an identity theft conviction can lead to awful consequences. Criminal charges related to identity theft can ruin a person's criminal record or reputation.
Criminal defense attorneys are an invaluable resource under such circumstances. Contact an identity theft attorney today. They can help you come up with the best identity theft defense.