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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 Overview

Identity theft occurs when someone unlawfully obtains another’s personal information and uses it 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.”

To further deter identity thieves, in 2004, Congress passed the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act. The legislation established penalties for “aggravated” identity theft, which is using the identity of another person to commit felony crimes, including immigration violations, theft of another’s Social Security benefits, and acts of domestic terrorism. The act required the court to sentence two additional years for a general offense and five years for a terrorism offense. 

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 publicly reported. It’s difficult to provide a precise assessment 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.

Some of the more prevalent schemes criminals are using these days to steal identities include suspicious e-mail and/or phishing attempts to trick victims into revealing personally identifiable information, “smash and grab” burglaries involving the theft of hard copy driver’s licenses, credit cards, check books, etc., and actual computer and network intrusions that result in the loss of personally identifiable information.