Identity theft is a criminal act that refers to the fraudulent use of another person’s identifying data. As such, when another person uses another individual’s identifying data without their consent or knowledge, they may be charged with identity theft. In general, the party that steals another person’s identity does so with the intent of committing fraud-related crimes.
Common examples of identifying data that may be stolen from an individual include, but are not limited to:
- The person’s name;
- The person’s physical identification cards, such as their driver’s license;
- The person’s home or work address;
- The person’s Social Security card or number;
- The person’s birth date;
- The person’s personal or work phone numbers;
- The person’s personal or work email addresses;
- The person’s credit card or charge card information; and
- The person’s banking information, such as their account and routing numbers or any digital access codes that give the person access to assets, including:
- Cryptocurrency wallets, trade accounts, or other accounts that possess something of monetary value.
Is Identity Theft a Crime?
In short, yes. As mentioned above, illegally using another person’s identity to obtain services, money, goods, or anything else of value is a crime punishable by both state and federal law. Although the exact definition of identity theft differs from state to state, stealing identifying information of another person to obtain something of monetary value will be considered identity theft.
Once again, a person may steal another person’s identity for numerous reasons. For instance, they can use the victim’s financial and personal information to withdraw money from their bank accounts or even open a fraudulent line of credit in their name by utilizing their identifying data. Another common use for identity theft is using a victim’s existing line of credit to make a large purchase.
Stealing a person’s identity is both a federal and state crime and a civil offense. This means that victims of identity theft can work with both state and federal law enforcement agencies to pursue criminal remedies against the person that harmed them. Local authorities will typically also work with authorities in other states to punish identity theft, as identity theft commonly occurs via information being stolen online.
Additionally, persons that have had their identity stolen may also sue the thief for the financial loss under the following legal theories:
It is important to note that a victim of identity theft will typically first contact the authorities for the authorities to investigate their allegation of identity theft. This is because identifying who has utilized their identity for financial gain is often hard. However, once a party has been identified, the party that was harmed may then also pursue civil remedies by suing the thief in civil court.
What Are Some Ways to Prevent Identity Theft?
As mentioned above, one of the most common occurrences of identity theft in the current digital age is computer phishing scams. In terms of phishing scams specifically, it is important to never give confidential information to another party online or via any communication device without first verifying the party seeking the information.
One common way of preventing phishing scams is to look at the source seeking the information. Most of the time, the source’s email will not be the same as the company, or the email may contain spelling or grammatical errors. Generally, banks and other legitimate institutions will never initiate communications and ask for your private information through email or phone.
Examples of other ways to protect oneself against identity theft include:
- Shredding any documents that may contain personal information, such as bank statements, mail, and receipts, instead of simply throwing the documents in the trash;
- Picking up any daily mail quickly to avoid having it stolen from the mailbox;
- Notifying the post office of any changes of address so that no one else has access to mail that may contain personal information;
- Avoiding keeping credit or charge cards and other such contents in plain sight in one’s car, where they may be more easily stolen;
- Canceling any lost or stolen cards immediately, such as ID cards, bank cards, or credit cards;
- Purchasing virus protection or malware software to protect one’s electronic devices; and
- Creating unique passwords for accessing one’s electronic devices so that all sensitive information will be protected should one’s device be lost or stolen.
If you are unsure at all of any activity or interactions, do not share your personal information until you can verify the source or the person you are talking to.
How Does Identity Theft Occur?
As mentioned above, one of the most common occurrences of identity theft occurs via online devices, most commonly through a phishing scam. However, identity theft may also occur in other ways, such as:
- Robbery, such as stealing one’s purse or a wallet;
- Mail theft, such as stealing one’s bank statements or insurance policy information;
- Dumpster diving or rummaging through another person’s trash to find identifying documents; or
- Computer fraud, such as hacking into another person’s computer system and accessing their saved passwords or other information, allowing them to obtain identifying information.
Identity theft is continually evolving as technology develops and changes over time. It’s important to take extra precaution with new technology, apps, or services.
What Should I Do if I Am a Victim of Identity Theft?
If you believe you are a victim of identity theft, you should immediately contact your local law enforcement. Local law enforcement will typically have a division of the police force dedicated to investigating the crime of identity theft. Once again, local law enforcement will typically work with other law enforcement in other jurisdictions to help investigate identity theft crimes that occur over the internet or outside one’s jurisdiction.
Then if there is sufficient evidence that ties the crime of identity theft to a party, the police will forward the case to the District Attorney’s office in the appropriate jurisdiction to prosecute the person who committed the crime against you.
The next step that an individual that believes their identity may have been stolen should be taken is to update all of their passwords and contact their bank and credit card companies to inform them of the possibility of identity theft. Often banks will put freezes on the account and cancel the cards to prevent fraudulent purchases. The bank or charge companies will then forward the victim new cards they may use to make future purchases.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Help With Identity Theft?
If you believe you are a victim of a phishing scam or some other form of identity theft, it is in your best interest to consult with a skilled and knowledgeable identity theft lawyer in your area as soon as possible. An experienced identity theft attorney will be able to help you gather evidence to support your claim and advise you regarding your legal rights and options.
Additionally, an attorney may also be able to assist you in civilly suing the identity thief if they can be identified. Your attorney can also provide you with updates if there are any changes to identity theft laws and statutes that might affect your legal rights or options. Finally, an attorney can represent you at any in-person proceeding.