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Identity Theft

In the Spotlight


Identity Theft

"Publicity regarding severe cases of identity theft in the print and electronic media and portrayal of the risk of identity theft in a number of effective television commercials have raised public awareness about identity theft. Arguably, however, few persons are aware of the complexities of the many issues involved with this crime, which is really a large set of fraudulent activities ranging in size from minor swindles to major crimes using stolen identities." (National Institute of Justice).


Identity theft and identity fraud are terms used to refer to types of crime in which someone wrongfully obtains and uses another individual's personal data in a way that involves fraud or deception, typically for economic gain. Unlike fingerprints, which are unique to an individual and cannot be given to someone else for their use, personal data - especially Social Security numbers, bank account or credit card numbers, telephone calling card numbers, and other valuable identifying data - can be used by someone to personally profit at the victim's expense (Identify Theft and Identity Fraud Web page, U.S. Department of Justice).

Unauthorized persons take funds out of others' bank or financial accounts or take over their identities altogether, running up debts and committing crimes while using the victims' names. A victim's losses may include not only out-of-pocket financial losses, but additional costs associated with trying to restore his reputation in the community and correcting erroneous information about his financial or personal status (Identify Theft and Identity Fraud web page, U.S. Department of Justice).

As presented in the Federal Trade Commission's Identity Theft: What to Know - What to Do, identity thieves might:

  • go through trash cans and dumpsters, stealing bills and documents that have sensitive information.
  • work for businesses, medical offices, or government agencies, and steal personal information on the job.
  • misuse the name of a legitimate business, and call or send emails that trick you into revealing personal information.
  • pretend to offer a job, a loan, or an apartment, and ask you to send personal information to "qualify."
  • steal your wallet, purse, backpack, or mail, and remove your credit cards, driver's license, passport, health insurance card, and other items that show personal information.

Various Federal and numerous State and local law enforcement agencies are responsible for investigating identity theft crimes. The Identity Theft Assumption and Deterrence Act of 1998 (Public Law 105-318) made identity theft a separate crime against the person whose identity was stolen, broadened the scope of the offense to include the misuse of information as well as documents, and provided a maximum sentence of up to 25 years. Increased penalties were later prescribed for aggravated identity theft, an offense established in the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act of 2004. Also, most States have enacted laws that criminalize identity theft (Identity Theft: Greater Awareness and Use of Existing Data are Needed, U.S. General Accounting Office, 2002).

This topical resource on Identity Theft contains the following information: