One of the most devastating aspects of identity theft is that the crime can often go completely undetected—the criminals walk away without any consequences. To make matters worse, only a small portion of identity theft crimes even get reported.1
But over the last decade, government agencies have been forming strategies and cracking down on the growing crime. And they’re now arresting thousands of identity thieves a year.1
The Size of the Crime
The effects of identity theft can result in anything from a family dispute to an international terrorist scheme. And the penalty reflects the scope of the effects.1 A couple hundred stolen dollars won’t have the same penalty as hundreds of passports sold to illegal immigrants.
To make matters even more complicated, an identity thief is often involved in several different offenses to complete one crime—and the punishment adds up. For instance, identification fraud, credit card fraud, computer fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud and financial institution fraud are federal offenses that result in separate, often substantial, penalties.2 If an identity thief conducts a series of offenses to complete the crime, he will be punished for each violation.2
Federal Vs. State
The legal repercussions of identity theft also depend on whether the criminal is being convicted under state or federal law. Although identity theft is a federal offense, many times government departments will work with state officials, or even international agencies, to convict an identity thief.1
Depending on the type and scope of the criminal activity, the offense may be reported by or assigned to certain state or federal agencies. And identity thieves can be simultaneously prosecuted under both types of law.3
In October of 1998, the government passed the Identity Theft Act, or, the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998.4 The act makes it a federal crime if anyone:
“knowingly transfers or uses, 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 put it simply, an accused identity thief is almost certainly facing federal charges and in some cases, the state may prosecute as well.
Part of the complexity of prosecuting identity thieves is the network of agencies in charge of combating the crime. The federal government has authorities representing a total of 96 task forces and working groups committed to fighting identity theft.5 Depending on the type of crime, the appropriate federal agency would investigative the violator. As written by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the Identity Theft Fact Sheet, the agencies include:
- Federal Trade Commission: The FTC provides support for criminal law enforcement through its Identity Theft Clearinghouse, the national repository of consumer complaint data. Law enforcers across the country use this secure online resource of more than 1 million complaints to identify trends and targets. This resource encourages greater coordination and data sharing among the more than 1,300 criminal enforcement agencies that have access to this system.
- U.S. Attorneys' Offices. U.S. Attorneys lead 17 identity-theft task forces and working groups, in cities such as Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Eugene, Oregon. Twenty-seven U.S. Attorneys' Offices participate in identity theft task forces or working groups.
- FBI. The FBI leads four identity theft task forces, and participates in 21 identity theft/financial crimes task forces or working groups in most of the major metropolitan areas. In addition, the FBI's Cyber Division has more than 90 task forces and more than 80 working groups, consisting of federal, state and local law enforcement personnel, which investigate all cybercrime violations, including identity theft and Internet fraud.
- Secret Service. The Secret Service has 27 Financial Crimes Task Forces and 24 Electronic Crimes Task Forces that focus on identity theft-related crimes.
- Postal Inspection Service: The Postal Inspection Service actively leads 13 Financial Crimes Task Forces/Working Groups in cities across the country.
- ICE: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has established Document and Benefit Fraud Task Forces (DBFTFs) in 11 cities across the country to enhance interagency communication and improve each agency's effectiveness in fraud investigations.5
In 2004, the government passed the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act, which increased the severity of the punishment for identity theft crimes.6
The prison sentence for identity theft starts at up to five years, plus two more years for using the stolen identity in another crime.6 The prison sentence grows from there, depending on how many related crimes were committed.6
For crimes connected to immigration or terrorism, or when there are multiple violations, the prison-sentence could be up to 30 years.2 Convicted identity thieves are often also responsible to pay a fine and give up any property gained through the identity theft crime.2 And most convicted identity thieves are not eligible for probation—the identity thief is required to serve the entire sentence in prison.6
The system may seem complex, but so is identity theft. When it’s all said and done an identity thief is looking at both jail time and a fine. It’s a big price to pay for a little information.
1 Finklea, Kristen M. “Identity Theft” Trends & Issues.” FAS.org. February 15,2012. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R40599.pdf p. 2 & p.12-15
2 Obringer, Lee Ann. "How Identity Theft Works." 10 September 2002. HowStuffWorks.com. http://money.howstuffworks.com/identity-theft.htm Accessed September 19, 2012.
3 “Understanding Identity Theft Law.” Identity-theft-scenario.com. Copyright 2011. http://www.identity-theft-scenarios.com/punishment-for-identity-theft.html Accessed September 19, 2012.
4 “Federal Laws: Criminal – Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act” Fighting Back Against Identity Theft by the Federal Trade Commission. http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/law-enforcement/federal-laws-criminal.html Accessed September 19, 2012.
5 “Fact Sheet: The Work of the President’s Identity Theft Task Force.” Department of Justice. September, 19 2006. http://www.ftc.gov/os/2006/09/060919IDtheftfactsheet.pdf
6 “Identity Theft and Penalty for Committing It.” Identity-theft-scenario.com. Copyright 2011. http://www.identity-theft-scenarios.com/identity-theft-and-penalty.html Accessed September 19, 2012.
† Federal Trade Commission. “Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book For
January – December 2011.” February 2012.
† Javelin Strategy & Research. "2012 Identity Fraud Report: Social Media and Mobile Forming
the New Fraud Frontier." February 2012.