Identity theft is the use of someone else’s name, identification, address, Social Security number, credit card, or other personal information without their knowledge or permission to commit fraud or other crimes. Identity theft is a federal crime, and many states have passed their own laws outlawing it as well.
A person might save their credit card information on their computer, to a web browser, or within a pre-filled form on a website. It would be considered identity theft if a hacker accessed it and used it to make purchases.
Identity theft can also occur when someone is not careful with their personal data in public. A criminal could easily overhear someone giving out information over the phone, such as their credit card or social security number, while in a public place.
As you can see from the examples above, the internet has given criminals many more opportunities than they had before. In order to protect your personal data, both offline and online, it is important to use safeguards. A thief could steal your identity and leave you with a criminal record, fraudulent tax records, and a poor credit score.
How Are Identities Stolen?
There are several ways in which criminals steal identities. Some examples include:
- Robbery: Stealing a wallet or purse to obtain driver’s licenses, credit cards, etc.
- Mail theft: Stealing mail, such as bank statements, credit card statements, or pre-approved new credit card offers to obtain identification information.
- Dumpster diving: Rummaging through your trash to find documents containing identification information and account numbers.
- Computer fraud: Hacking into computer systems that contain identification information.
- Phishing: Scamming information from victims by posing as a legitimate business person.
How Do Identity Thieves Operate?
Identity theft is a major problem among children. This is because they are more likely to be impersonated. For example, most children don’t have a credit card, driver’s license, tax record history, or any other identifying information. Therefore, criminals can use children’s information to establish lines of credit, obtain government IDs like passports or licenses, and get a mortgage.
Identity thieves can get a child’s information by asking them in person, messaging them online, or accessing them. A parent or guardian with the child’s information may use it to open a credit card account or take out a loan. The thieves may also pose as authority figures (such as school administrators) so that the child feels obligated to divulge information to them.
Theft of identity from elderly people can usually be accomplished in one of two ways. The first method is to take advantage of their ignorance of technology. People who are elderly often don’t know how to use technology or understand how it works.
Consequently, they may post personal information online where anyone can see it, have poor or no security protections on accounts, or refrain from using technology altogether, opting instead to mail checks.
The second way that thieves obtain information about elderly persons is through theft by deception. Thieves may pretend to be long-lost relatives or medical personnel or show up at nursing homes claiming to be representatives of their bank or other important business and ask them to sign documents.
Identity theft that targets a child or an elderly person will result in severe legal penalties if convicted.
Who Can Be Held Liable for Identity Theft?
Law enforcement can find the person responsible for identity theft, and they can be sued in both criminal and civil court.
Victims may have other options if they do not know the perpetrator or law enforcement cannot locate them. Parties involved are:
- Credit card companies;
- Credit bureaus;
- Merchants who process credit card transactions;
- Employers; and
- Most likely, any other business that had possession of and may be responsible for the stolen information.
According to state laws and the circumstances of the case, a person may be able to sue any of these parties:
- Breach of fiduciary duty;
- Invasion of privacy;
- Breach of contract;
- Infliction of emotional distress; and
- Any other legal theories listed under the state statute.
What Are the Penalties for Identity Theft?
In some cases, identity theft is also a state crime. If convicted of identity theft, a defendant may face the following penalties:
- Punishment for any related crimes (e.g., mail or credit card fraud); and
- Forfeiture of any personal property used to commit or gain from the crime.
How Can I Protect Myself Against Identity Theft?
Keeping your bank and credit card information secure is the best way to protect yourself from identity theft.
You should get into the habit of following these routines:
- Shred bank statements, mail, receipts, and any other documents that might contain personal identification information before you throw them in the trash.
- Pick up your mail daily and ask a trusted family member, friend, or neighbor to pick it up for you when you are out of town; notify the post office of any change of address.
- Do not keep credit cards in your car where they can be stolen.
- Cancel lost or stolen cards immediately.
- Purchase virus protection for your home computer.
- Create passwords for accessing your home computer, laptop, cell phone, and tablet, so sensitive information will be inaccessible in the event a device is lost or stolen.
- Do not email confidential or sensitive financial information; only communicate this type of information through a trusted and secure website.
What Do I Do If I Think My Identity Has Been Stolen?
It is important to contact the police if you are a victim of identity theft. The police will forward your case to the District Attorney’s office if there is sufficient evidence to prosecute the perpetrator. Inform your bank and credit card companies of the problem as soon as possible. It may even be a good idea to freeze or close the accounts.
How Much Can You Sue for Identity Theft?
It may be possible for the victim to sue in civil court if they know or the police can locate the person responsible for the identity theft.
The victim may be able to recover the following if the lawsuit is successful:
- Compensatory damages: This is the most common type of damages award issued and will cover financial losses caused by the crime.
- Punitive damages: In rare and extraordinary instances of identity theft, a victim may be able to claim punitive damages. Besides providing additional funds to the victim, punitive damages are designed to punish and deter the defendant from committing future offenses.
- Emotional damages: If the victim suffered emotional distress (e.g., anxiety or depression) due to the theft, they might be able to recover emotional damages. However, it is often very difficult to obtain these damages.
- Injunctive relief: Injunctions are court orders that require a defendant to take or refrain from a certain action. A court can order a defendant to apologize, notify persons about the data exposure, and possibly release the victim from financial liability.
However, in a criminal case, the goal is to punish the defendant. As a result, any fines the defendant is ordered to pay will go directly to the federal or state governments. However, in some cases, the victim may be able to request restitution. As a result of the crime, the defendant will have to compensate the victim for any out-of-pocket costs.
Can I Sue the Person Who Stole My Identity?
You may be able to sue the person who stole your personal information if you are the victim of identity theft. It is highly recommended that you contact an identity theft lawyer because of the potential complexity of your case.
Only an attorney can analyze the facts of your case and determine whether and how you can sue for identity theft. Besides advising you of your rights, an attorney can explain the relevant legal issues and help you recover damages.