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Identity Theft Overview

Identity theft occurs when someone wrongfully obtains another’s personal information without their knowledge to commit theft or fraud.

Identity Theft

Identity theft occurs when someone wrongfully obtains another’s personal information without their knowledge to commit theft or fraud.

In 1998, Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act to address the increasing problem of identity theft. The act specifically amended Title 18, U.S. Code, Section 1028, to make it a federal crime to “knowingly transfer or use, 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.”

Along with names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth, fraudsters also use Medicare numbers, addresses, birth certificates, death certificates, passport numbers, financial account numbers (bank account or credit card), passwords (like mother’s maiden name, father’s middle name), telephone numbers, and biometric data (like fingerprints, iris scans) to commit identity theft.

The number of identity theft victims and total losses are probably much higher than what’s been reported. Because different law enforcement agencies may classify identity theft crimes differently, and because identity theft can also involve credit card fraud, Internet fraud, or mail theft—among other crimes—it’s difficult to provide a precise assessment. The FBI, however, has dedicated significant analytical resources to combating the identity theft problem and is working with other agencies to develop a system that will analyze large streams of identity theft data.

The FBI has also dedicated resources to investigating these crimes. Since fiscal year 2008 through the middle of fiscal year 2013, the number of identity theft-related crimes investigated by the Bureau across all programs have resulted in more than 1,600 convictions, $78.6 billion in restitutions, $4.6 billion in recoveries, and $6.8 billion in fines.

Here are two recent examples of cases that the FBI worked with its federal law enforcement partners:

  • In February 2013, 11 South Florida residents were charged in a $34 million stolen identity tax refund scheme. According to the indictment, the defendants recruited knowing participants and unknowing victims to put businesses, bank accounts, and Electronic Filing Identification Numbers in the defendants’ names, which they then used to execute their fraud scheme. They used the personal identifiable information of real people, including some deceased, to file thousands of false income tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service so they would receive tax refund checks at addresses and bank accounts they controlled. More on the case
  • In February 2013, 18 people were charged in an international $200 million credit card fraud scam in which 7,000 fake identities were invented to obtain an estimated 25,000 fraudulent credit cards. The scam, as reported by the indictment, involved a sprawling criminal enterprise that stretched across dozens of states and numerous countries. Members of the enterprise allegedly fabricated identities to obtain credit cards and doctored credit reports to pump up the spending and borrowing power associated with the cards. They would then borrow or spend as much as they could based on their fraudulently obtained credit history and not repay the debts, looting businesses and financial institutions in the process. More on the case