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Cyber Crime: Identity Theft

Katie A Farina, Cabrini College, Radnor, PA, USA

2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Identity theft is considered to be one of the fastest growing crimes in America. Due to the technological advancements and
the almost ubiquitous use of computers and the Internet, identity theft is a crime that can occur practically anywhere. This
article explores the various types of identity theft including medical identity theft, nancial identity theft, and child identity
theft. Additionally, this article highlights the prevalence of identity theft and its costs to victims both monetarily and in
relation to physical and emotional stress. Finally, this article examines the recent strides of legislation to identify and combat
identity theft.

Many argue that identity thefts and cybercrimes involving fraud
are considered the fastest growing crime in America (Cole
and Pontell, 2006, p. 125). However, it is difcult for
researchers and scholars to truly understand the prevalence,
cost, and type of identity theft and fraud that occur, because
there is not a universally agreed-upon denition (Allison
et al., 2005). This varied and vague denition leads to a lack
of reliable data that makes it difcult to capture the true
numbers regarding the commission of this crime. This article
explores several aspects of identity theft, including how practitioners and scholars dene identity theft, as well as the various
offenses that are considered identity theft. Additionally, current
estimates of both the prevalence and costs of these crimes are
considered as well as the target demographics of both victims
and offenders. Moreover, a brief discussion of one of the
most well-known international identity theft scams is included.
Finally, this article explores the evolution of legislation meant
to safeguard victims from identity thefts and assist those who
are victimized.

What Is Identity Theft?

While there is no singular denition, a common theme of identity theft offenses revolves around the misuse of another individuals personal information to commit fraud (The
Presidents Identity Task Force, 2008, p. 2). Crimes that have
fallen under the umbrella of identity theft include, but are
not limited to, checking and credit card fraud, counterfeiting,
forgery, mortgage fraud, human trafcking, terrorism, passport
fraud, and social security fraud. According to the United States
General Accounting Ofce (2002), personal identifying information that can be used to commit fraud includes an individuals name, address, social security number, date of birth, alien
registration number, taxpayer identication number, passport
number, drivers license number, mothers maiden name, or
even biometric information such as ones ngerprint, voice
print, or retina image. A recent report issued by the Federal
Trade Commission (FTC), which has been documenting
consumer complaints and experiences for years, highlighted
identity theft as the most common reported fraud among

International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Volume 5

consumers. However, nearly two thirds of those who reported

the victimization to the FTC did not report to local law enforcement (Federal Trade Commission, 2009).

Types of Identity Theft

According to Allison et al. (2005), the methods employed by
identity thieves can best be dened based upon the degree of
technology utilized. The authors rst distinguish those
offenders who utilize low technology. Low-technology
methods tend to be the most common mostly due to their
relative ease. Examples include theft of wallets or purses and
going through someones trash looking for personal identifying information. A second method used by offenders is
termed high technology. Criminals who use high-technology
methods must possess a certain degree of expertise and skill
set. Their methods include the use of the Internet, skimming,
and pretext calling. Skimming is the act of using computers to
read and store information that is encoded onto the magnetic
strip of a credit card or an automated teller machine (ATM)
card. Once the offender has stolen this information, they
can then place it onto a blank card thus allowing them to
access the victims bank account. Pretext calling is when
offenders make contact with the victim under false pretenses
with the purpose of obtaining personal information directly
from the victim (Newmann, 1999). A variation of pretext
calling occurs when offenders email victims pretending to
be their Internet service provider and request an update to
their account information and credit card accounts (Allison
et al., 2005). Offenders can also obtain personal identifying
information from businesses or institutions that maintain
customer, employee, patient, or even student records. Identity
thieves may work in jobs that allow them access to others
credit records. Offenders may pretend to offer a victim
a loan, a job, or an apartment and require that the individual
reveal personal information in order to qualify. There are
a variety of crimes that identity thieves carry out once they
have a victims information. These include taking out loans,
opening credit cards, taking out cash advances and credit
applications, establishing a cell phone service in the victims
name, opening a new bank account, and writing bad checks
(Allison et al., 2005; Newmann, 1999).



Cyber Crime: Identity Theft

In addition to nancial identity theft, there is also medical

identity theft. Medical identity theft occurs when an individual uses a victims information to obtain medical treatment without his/her knowledge or consent. The Identity
Theft Resource Center (ITRC) cautions that this type of identity theft is particularly easy as it may only require the use of
an individuals name, date of birth, and address. It is also
dangerous because hospitals are required to take in any emergency patients and the patients information may not be veried as accurate before being sent to the billing department.
An additional aspect of medical identity theft is related to
an individuals medical history. If an offender is using
a victims information for a medical situation, the treatment,
prescription drugs, or surgery the offender received will
appear on the victims medical records. As a result, the victim
whose medical history has been compromised may now nd
it difcult to receive prescription medications or receive
proper diagnoses and treatment if they require emergency
attention. Once a victim of medical identity theft is contacted
about these fraudulent charges, it can take months to facilitate
changes or updates with insurance providers, Medicare, and/
or the hospitals billing department to work out the incorrect
billing (Rocha, 2013).
A subset of nancial and medical identity theft is child identity theft. Child identity theft is any of the above types of theft
or fraud that is perpetrated against a child. This type of theft is
particularly troubling, because it often goes undiscovered for
many years because children rarely have independent nances
(Beltran, 2013). Children are a suitable target for identity
thieves for a number of reasons. First, parents rarely check
a childs credit history. Because children are unable to enter
into a legal contract and should not have established credit
histories, parents have little reason to suspect fraud. Second,
the use of a childs identity provides offenders with a blank
slate. As such, offenders are presented with a wide range of
fraudulent activity that they will be able to commit without
raising any red ags (Beltran, 2013).

Prevalence of Identity Theft

The use of varied denitions of identity theft by ofcial
agencies has made it difcult to calculate the extent and
patterns of this crime. However, both the FTC and the Bureau
of Justice Statistics (sponsoring the National Crime Victimization Survey, NCVS) have each collected data in an attempt to
elucidate the prevalence, costs, and forms of identity theft.
Both the FTC (2007) and the NCVS (Bureau of Justice
Statistics, 2011) have observed a rise in the victimization of
identity theft since the new millennium. Recently, the NCVS
announced that 7.0% of all households in the United States,
or approximately 8.6 million households, had at least one
member aged 12 or older who experienced at least one form
of identity theft in 2010. This represented an increase from
5.5% of households, or 6.4 million households, that were
victims of identity theft in 2005. According to the NCVS, this
increase was due to a rise in the misuse of existing credit card
accounts (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011). Similarly, the
FTC (2009) claimed that identity theft was the most prevalent
form of fraud committed in the United States. The most

commonly reported identity thefts included credit card fraud,

government documents and benets fraud, employment fraud,
phone/utilities fraud, and bank fraud. In fact, the FTC (2009)
highlighted that in the past decade, credit card complaints
and automobile-related complaints have nearly doubled.
The ITRC tracks data breaches by monitoring and conrming media reports of identity theft. A data breach is dened
as an event in which an individuals name plus Social Security
Number (SSN), drivers license number, medical record, or
a nancial record/credit/debit card is potentially put at risk
either in electronic or paper format (Identity Theft Resource
Center, 2013, p. 95). In 2012, the ITRC reported 470 data
breaches in the United States resulting in 17 491 690 records
being exposed. It is important to note that this number is
low, because not all incidents of identity theft report the
amount of records exposed (Identity Theft Resource Center,
2013). Furthermore, it is pertinent to note that a breach does
not necessarily indicate that an individual is a victim of identity
theft. A breach signies that an individuals information
(name, address, social security number, etc.) has been compromised, exposed, and places the individual at greater risk for
identity theft than the average consumer.
AllClear ID Alert Network, a privately funded organization
dedicated to providing identity theft protection, released
a report detailing the trends of child identity theft. In 2012,
they uncovered that 10.7% of children were victims of identity
theft, this number corresponding with the FTCs nding that
8% of identity theft complaints involved someone 19 years
old and younger (May, 2012). The report found that children
are 35 times more likely to become a victim of identity theft
than an adult and that the rate of identity theft among victims
aged 5 and younger has increased tremendously in the past
decade (May, 2012).

Costs of Identity Theft

The inconsistent use of a denition for identity theft has made
it difcult for scholars and government agencies to gauge a true
count of the prevalence of identity theft. Additionally, these
varying denitions hinder the ability to garner the emotional
and monetary costs of identity theft to victims. It is difcult
to garner a true assessment of costs incurred by victims for
a variety of reasons. Usually the individual whose information
has been misused is not legally responsible for any costs associated with the theft. Additionally, victims may incur expenses
when they are dealing with the ramications of having their
identity stolen. For instance, identity theft victims may need
to close existing accounts, open new ones, monitor credit
reports, and pay higher interest rates on loans and credit
accounts as a result of the theft. The individual may not have
suffered a monetary cost as a direct result of the identity theft,
but as a means to deal with the victimization. In fact, it took
victims an average of 175 h over a span of 2 years to regain
sound nancial standing following a theft (Copes et al.,
2010). According to Pontell et al. (2008), victims who miss
work to deal with identity theft lose an average wage
of $4000. Furthermore, this process of dealing with the
ramications of identity theft can take a multitude of hours
and even years to overcome and consumers often experience

Cyber Crime: Identity Theft

consequences in the interim. For instance, the consumers

credit history may be scarred leading to a denial of mortgages,
loans, and bank accounts.
The NCVS and the FTC have attempted to identify both the
frequency and the monetary effects of identity theft on victims,
sometimes with conicting accounts. According to the FTC
(2007), over 8 million people were affected by identity theft
and lost nearly $16 billion dollars. The NCVS (Bureau of
Justice Statistics, 2011) surveyed victims directly and uncovered
that, on average, victimized households lost $1830, while the
FTC (2007) highlighted that businesses lost an average of
$4800. It is important to note that this monetary loss may
differ based upon the type of victimization. For instance,
consumers who experience the misuse of personal information
reported an average loss of $5650, while those experiencing
fraud of existing accounts lost on average $1140 and nally
victims of existing credit card fraud lost about $1300 (Bureau
of Justice Statistics, 2011). In addition to the loss of money
and time, victims may also experience physical and emotional
stress such as anger, helplessness and mistrust, disturbed
sleeping patterns, and a feeling of lack of security (Davis and
Stevenson, 2004). The ITRC conducted a study of victims
who reported mental health consequences of identity theft.
In the short term, victims report feeling betrayed, deled, and
powerless; 30% of the sample experienced long-term consequences of feeling distrustful of others and 4% experienced
suicidal ideations.

Identity Theft Victims and Offenders

Demographic characteristics are somewhat helpful in determining who is at risk for identity theft. According to the
NCVS (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011), households headed
by an individual 65 years or older reported the lowest rate of
identity theft. Additionally, those residing in married households and households with high income levels ($75 000 or
above) reported higher rates of victimization. Other studies
found that the risk of victimization is highest for consumers
between the ages of 25 and 54 (Anderson, 2006). However,
age has become a point of contention among researchers.
Recently, the NCVS has uncovered an increase in identity theft
victimization among those aged 1824. Households headed by
whites, Asians, and those reporting two or more races also reported the highest rates of identity theft victimization. Most
victims do not know their offenders and the majority of victims
believe that their information was stolen during a purchase or
other transaction (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011). In addition to these demographic variables, analysis of the FTCs
data found that households headed by women with three or
more children were more likely to be victims of identity theft
(Anderson, 2006). There may also be regional variation among
identity theft victims. In 2011, the FTC (2012) reported that
Colorado reported the highest per capita rate of fraud followed
by Delaware and Maryland, while Florida reported the highest
per capita rate of identity theft complaints, followed by Georgia
and California.
The lack of reliable data also impacts what we know about
identity theft offenders. Demographics about offenders are
typically revealed through police reports and closed case les.


These data revealed that nearly half of all offenders are between
the ages of 24 and 34 and one-third are between 35 and
49 years old. In terms of race and ethnicity, over half were black
while whites and Hispanics account for nearly 40% of
offenders (Copes and Vieraitis, 2012). While research has
made strides in understanding the risks of victimization,
scholars have only recently attempted to understand the motivations of identity theft offenders. In one of the rst studies that
interviewed these offenders in federal prisons, Copes and
Vieraitis (2009) examined how an offenders experiences and
life circumstances affected their decision to commit identity
theft. The primary motivation for committing this type of fraud
was a desire for money. Offenders often viewed identity theft as
an easy crime that was extremely rewarding. Often, these individuals perceived their risk of capture to be extremely low,
because of their supposed advanced skills and the perceived
incompetence of law enforcement. Finally, it is of interest to
note that many of these offenders justied their crimes by
claiming that no real harm was caused to any of their victims.

Identity Theft Legislation

Identity theft ofcially became a criminal act in the United
States when Arizona passed the rst state statute in 1996, followed by California in 1997 (Pontell, 2009). Following this
legislation, the federal government passed the Identity Theft
Assumption and Deterrence Act in 1998. This was the rst piece
of federal legislation that made identity theft a distinct crime
against the individual whose identifying information was
stolen. Additionally, the act declared that identity theft was
punishable for up to 15 years of imprisonment and a maximum
ne of $250 000. Furthermore, the US Sentencing Commission
has outlined a sentence of 1016 months of imprisonment that
can be imposed regardless of an offenders previous criminal
record or lack of monetary loss suffered by the victim (Copes
and Vieraitis, 2009).
As the rate of identity theft continues to rise, crime control
agencies have established laws that aim to increase penalties
against offenders or to help victims of identity theft. In
2003, the United States Congress passed the Fair and Accurate
Credit Transactions Act (FACTA). Specically, this act was
aimed to protect consumers from identity thieves and to
help those who report victimization. As a result of this act,
FACTA grants all consumers the right to one free credit report
each year. Additionally, the act requires merchants to leave all
but the last ve digits of a customers credit card number off
store receipts and lenders and credit agencies to take action
against identity thieves even if a consumer has not realized
they have been victimized.
FACTA also mandated the creation of several national
systems. The rst is a system of fraud detection to increase
the likelihood of discovering identity thieves. Furthermore,
a nationwide system has been created that allows fraud alerts
to be placed on credit les so that consumers may be notied
of any unusual activity on their account. As part of this
National Fraud Alert System, consumers are now allowed to
place three types of fraud alerts on their credit les. The rst,
an initial alert, is for individuals who suspect they are, or about
to become, victims of identity theft. An extended alert may be


Cyber Crime: Identity Theft

placed on an account for an individual who has been a victim

of identity theft and has led a report with law enforcement.
This extended alert lasts for 7 years wherein credit agencies
may not use the consumers name for prescreened credit or
insurance offers. Finally, military personnel can now place an
active duty alert on their credit les when they are either
serving active duty or are assigned to service away from their
typical station (Fair & Accurate Credit Transactions Act of
2003, 2003). These initiatives serve as a place to assist an individual who has become a victim of identity theft.
As scholars and researchers learn more about identity theft
and the various forms it may take, legislators must adjust to
this changing arena. In 2004, the Identity Theft Penalty
Enhancement Act enacted stiffer penalties for those convicted
of an array of identity theft-related crimes as well as codied
a new crime known as aggravated identity theft. Aggravated
identity theft occurs when an individual knowingly transfers,
possesses, or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identication of another person during and/or in relation to a list of
over 100 felony offenses (Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement
Act, 2004, p. 1). These include, but are not limited to, embezzlement, mail, bank and wire fraud, immigration fraud, passport and visa violations, social security fraud, and specied
terrorism violations. Convictions of aggravated identity theft
mandate enhanced penalties. According to the act, if an individual participates in identity theft during the commission of
one of these listed felonies, a minimum of 2-years in prison
must be served consecutively with the sentence for the underlying felony. If the identity theft occurs during and in relation
to one of the more than 40 federal terrorism-related felonies,
then the penalty is a mandatory minimum of an additional
5 years in prison to be served consecutively to the underlying
felony (Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act, 2004).
In May of 2006, President George Walker Bush established
a Presidential Task Force in hopes of coordinating government
agencies to more effectively ght identity theft. The hopes of
the task force were to identify components to make the government more adept at the awareness, prevention, detection, and
prosecution of identity theft. After a 2-year investigation, the
task force released a report with 31 recommendations to better
assist victims and combat the crime of identity theft. They highlighted four areas where improvements should be made: data
protection, avoiding data misuse, victim assistance, and deterrence. In relation to data protection, the task force called for
a new culture of security among the private and public sectors.
The task force called on the government to do a better job of protecting personal information, especially in relation to social security numbers, while calling on the private sector to do the same.
In fact, in 2008, the United States Postal Service delivered mailings to over 146 million residences and businesses with advice
on how to protect oneself from identity theft. Second, the task
force also worked to make the misuse of consumer data more
difcult for potential criminals. In terms of assisting victims,
the task force provided identity theft training to over 900 law
enforcement ofcers from over 250 agencies as well as victim
assistance counselors to be better equipped to deal with the
unique issues related to a victim of identity theft. Additionally,
the task force provided grants to organizations to directly help
victims while also working closely with the American Bar Association to provide pro bono legal assistance to victims of identity

theft. Finally, in relation to detection and punishment, the task

force proposed tougher legislation and worked with foreign
law enforcement agencies to better detect, prosecute, and punish
offenders (The Presidents Identity Task Force, 2008). Above all,
the task force highlighted the ever-evolving nature of identity
theft and a need for legislation and protection to evolve along
with new techniques of identity theft.
Such policies that are aimed at detecting and deterring identity theft are often varied and complicated due to a lack of
resources for investigation and prosecution. Additionally, identity theft is a unique crime in that cross-jurisdictional problems
can often arise. For instance, it is often possible for victims and
offenders to live in different states due to the use of technology.
Someones identity can be stolen remotely with the use of
a computer. The nature of these crimes can lead to issues where
law enforcement agencies eschew their responsibility onto
another agency (White and Fisher, 2008). Partly in response
to this dilemma, a second Presidential Task Force was
convened in November 2009 by President Barack Obama.
The Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force (FFETF) is the
broadest coalition of law enforcement agencies and regulatory
services ever assembled to combat fraud. The FFETF is tasked
with improving efforts between the government, state, and
local crime control partners to investigate, prosecute, and
punish those responsible for nancial crime related to fraud.
In order to assist victims of identity theft, credit card fraud,
and mortgage fraud, the FFETF launched a government-run
website ( to teach the American public
about nancial fraud and help victims regain any losses. In
fact, the task forces Distressed Homeowner Initiative assisted
over 73 000 homeowners who were the victims of mortgage
and loan frauds and charged over 530 criminal defendants
(Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, 2010).
When the 2012 legislative sessions came to a close, every
state had a law that specically outlawed identity theft or
impersonation. Additionally, 29 states along with Guam,
Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia had specic restitution provisions in place for victims of identity theft, while
ve had forfeiture provisions set up for crimes of identity theft
(Morton, 2012). While legislation to protect and assist victims
of identity theft continues to grow, recent research by Piquero
et al. (2011) surveyed nearly 30 000 respondents, half of which
reported they would be willing to pay an additional tax if it
would go toward identity theft prevention. This research
nding highlights the publics growing concern with identity
theft and their willingness to pay for protection.

Identity Theft: An International Example

With the increasing use of technology in identity theft offenses,
this phenomenon is not conned to merely one area. The use
of the Internet allows for an individuals identity and private
data information to be shared instantly and over any geographical area. In fact, identity theft offenders may take advantage of
different levels of law enforcement that exist between local,
state, federal, and national agencies (Levi, 2008). One of the
most well-known international identity theft syndicates is
The Nigerian Letter or 419, so named after the criminal
code against it in Nigeria (Atta-Asamoah, 2009; Levi, 2008).

Cyber Crime: Identity Theft

While these crimes can take various forms, 419s are essentially
money scams that affect individuals all over the world. Before
the increased use of the Internet, those who perpetrated this
offense would send letters to various residential addresses to
build a relationship with a potential target and then swindle
money. However, the use of technology has led to enhanced
419s wherein the offender uses a variety of tools to discover
information about the target online, such as hacking into sites,
scanning web pages for email addresses, and targeting victims
in online chat rooms (Atta-Asamoah, 2009). Once this information has been procured, the scammer then uses the identity
of the victim to scam and exploit him/her. The continued use of
this tactic to commit identity fraud, money laundering, and
theft has permeated West African nations so much so that it
has moved from incidents committed by individuals into
loosely organized networks.

Identity theft may not be a new phenomenon, but the prominence of the Internet and our reliance upon technology has not
only allowed for an increase in such offenses, but has also
changed how this crime is perpetrated. Child identity theft,
medical identity theft, social security fraud, credit card fraud,
and data breaches affect over 8.6 million American households
yearly. The costs of these offenses are staggering. Monetary losses number in the billions and victims report feelings of
betrayal, distrust, and powerlessness. The rapid development
of technology and increasing use of the Internet has allowed
offenders to target victims from anywhere on the globe.
Scholars and practitioners alike are grappling with understanding this ever-changing phenomenon. By lacking
a common denition of these crimes, it is not only difcult
to measure the prevalence and costs of these offenses, but
lawmakers are faced with the arduous task of creating effective
legislation. Both legislators and academics have turned their
interest on these crimes and are seeking to understand not
only the crime itself, but how to deter such victimizations.

See also: Crime: Knowledge about and Prevalence; Crime:

Whitecollar; Deterrence: Sanction Perceptions; Prevention of
Crime and Delinquency; Property Crime: Victimization and
Trends; Victimless Crime.

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Relevant Websites Bureau of Justice Statistics: Identity
Theft. Federal Trade
Commission Consumer Information. Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. Identity Theft Resource Center. The Presidents Task Force on Identity Theft.