Identity theft is a serious and all-too-prevalent crime in the United States. You’ve seen the TV commercials and heard the stories on the evening news. Indeed, the Director of the FBI has stated the biggest threat to Americans today is having their identity stolen. By know you surely know that you need to keep your credit card, bank and other personal information guarded so that you don’t have your identity stolen, your debts run up and your credit score ruined. Therefore, it is important to understand exactly what identity theft is and what the consequences are for the crime.
What is Identity Theft?
In 1998, Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act which made identity theft, also known as identity fraud, a federal crime. According to the Department of Justice, the Act explicitly, “prohibits knowingly transfer[ring] or us[ing], 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.”
Most often the crime consists of someone obtaining someone else’s personal information such as a social security number, credit card number or bank account number and using it without permission for personal economic gain.
Federal agencies such as the FBI, the US Postal Service and the US Secret Service are responsible for investigating allegations that someone’s identity has been stolen in violation of the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act. The US Department of Justice is responsible for prosecuting any claims that lead to an arrest. Typically, federal agencies will investigate and prosecute if the alleged identity theft is part of a group of thefts or if the monetary amount is high.
Otherwise, the investigation and prosecution of the crime may be left to state agencies. Each state has laws that make identity theft a crime and attach different sentences to the crime.
Penalties for Identity Theft
If a person is convicted of the federal crime of identity theft then, in most cases, the crime carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, a fine and, the forfeiture of any property used or intended to be used to commit the offense.
However, sometimes the sentences can be significantly higher because the person convicted of identity theft is also convicted of other crimes. For example, there are closely related federal laws that prohibit identification fraud, credit card fraud, computer fraud and mail fraud.
While our system of justice seeks to punish those who commit crimes such as identity theft and to restore the victim to the position he was in before the crime was committed, it is important to note that it is not always possible to do so. Many identity theft victims have to spend a lot of money and a lot of time proving their case and restoring their reputation.
Those losses are not always able to be repaid. Therefore, it is important for every American to take all of the steps necessary to safeguard their identity and to protect their assets, their credit and their financial future.
The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.