Identity theft (Forensic Science)
The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 made it a federal crime when someone “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 felony.” In simpler terms, identity theft occurs when individuals, without permission, transfer, take, or use for their own benefit the personal or financial information of others. After 1998, almost all U.S. states, following the federal government’s lead, enacted versions of identity theft legislation to deal with this growing problem. Most states constructed their laws hastily, however, and the results for investigation and prosecution of identity theft cases have been mediocre at best.
Identity theft is not typically a stand-alone crime; rather, it is almost always a component of one or more types of fraud, such as credit card fraud, passport fraud, or counterfeiting. In fact, identity theft is typically categorized as a gateway crime, because after individuals steal others’ information, this opens possibilities for more criminal activity to take place. Stolen personal information is often used to create new or false identities. Criminals use stolen personal information such as Social Security numbers to establish credit, run up debt, and take over existing financial accounts.
In establishing the criminal intent they must prove to convict the...
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Identity Thieves: Why, What, and How (Forensic Science)
The most common cause of identity theft in the United States is personal greed. Most identity thieves are motivated by the opportunity for quick credit or monetary gain. Technological advances, especially the introduction of the Internet, have made it easy and profitable for identity thieves to operate and to steal from multiple victims. Using the Internet, they can bring in thousands of dollars while taking minimal chances that they will be detected and investigated; the benefits to these criminals thus far outweigh the potential risks.
Identity thieves vary in the types of information they seek to steal, but very often they are after some if not all of the following: Social Security numbers, driver’s license data, bank and other financial statement information, insurance records, tax return information, passport or other citizenship information, credit card numbers and corresponding account information, military records, and birth, marriage, and death records. They are also interested in any other forms of information, particularly financial information, that they might ultimately use for some sort of personal gain.
Identity thieves are known to use several common techniques. Some criminals literally go through trash cans and larger refuse receptacles to find copies of checks, credit card and bank statements, credit card solicitations, or other records that contain personal information; this is...
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Prevalence and Scope of the Problem (Forensic Science)
The true prevalence of identity theft victimization in the United States is unknown, but it has been estimated that between 500,000 and 750,000 people, from all fifty states, filed criminal complaints stating that they were victims of identity theft in fiscal year 2006. The overall prevalence of this crime is difficult to track, as the theft of a single identity is often the means by which criminals commit numerous other crimes. Most victims of identity theft, moreover, do not even come to realize they have been victimized until months after the fact. The U.S. Department of Justice has estimated that, on average, identity theft victims may not know that have become victims for fourteen to sixteen months after their information has been stolen. Many, because of embarrassment or shame that they were victimized, will not file criminal complaints. The federal government estimates that the crime of identity theft costs U.S. taxpayers close to fifty billion dollars per year.
It has been estimated that close to ten million people in the United States become victims of identity theft every year. One of the principal credit-reporting bureaus, TransUnion, has reported receiving on average more than one thousand calls per day from known victims of identity theft. In fact, credit bureaus now estimate that two-thirds of all their consumer complaints relate to identity theft, more than 500,000 per year.
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Investigation and Prosecution (Forensic Science)
On the federal level, violations of the 1998 Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act and the 2004 Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act are investigated by several law-enforcement agencies, including the Social Security Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secret Service, the Office of the Inspector General, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. These federal agencies usually tend to focus only on high-profile cases or on those cases involving very high dollar amounts, however. Most victims in the United States must rely on state and local authorities to assist them in restoring their good names. This can be quite problematic, as many local and state agencies lack sufficient personnel who have the training, education, and general skills needed to investigate and prosecute these complex offenses.
In the investigation of identity theft, one of the most difficult issues facing law-enforcement agencies on all levels is that of jurisdiction—it is not always clear which agencies have the authority to pursue particular cases. In addition, law-enforcement personnel and prosecutors may be unfamiliar with the relevant state and federal statutes concerning identity theft. For these reasons, arrests and prosecutions for identity theft are rare, a fact that can be tremendously frustrating for victims.
Since 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice...
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Further Reading (Forensic Science)
Arnold, Tom. Internet Identity Theft: A Tragedy for Victims. Mountain View, Calif.: Software and Information Industry Association, 2000. Describes the differences between identity theft committed online and “traditional” identity theft and offers suggestions for prevention.
Collins, Judith M. Investigating Identity Theft: A Guide for Businesses, Law Enforcement, and Victims. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2006. Presents comprehensive information on the investigation of crimes of identity theft. Includes interesting case studies.
Hammond, Robert J., Jr. Identity Theft: How to Protect Your Most Valuable Asset. Franklin Lakes, N.J.: Career Press, 2003. General guide for laypersons focuses on identity theft prevention and awareness.
Hayward, Claudia L., ed. Identity Theft. New York: Novinka Books, 2004. Brief collection of articles covers a variety of aspects of identity theft.
Sullivan, Bob. Your Evil Twin: Behind the Identity Theft Epidemic. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2004. Presents a comprehensive examination of the scope of identity theft investigation, prevention, and education.
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Identity Theft (West's Encyclopedia of American Law)
IDENTITY THEFT is the assumption of a person's identity in order, for instance, to obtain credit; to obtain credit cards from banks and retailers; to steal money from existing accounts; to rent apartments or storage units; to apply for loans; or to establish accounts using another's name. An identity thief can steal thousands of dollars in a victim's name without the victim even knowing about it for months or years. Identity thieves are able to accomplish their crimes by doing things such as opening a new credit card account with a false address, or using the victims's name, date of birth, and SOCIAL SECURITY number. When the thief uses the credit card and does not pay the resulting bills, the delinquent account is reported on the victim's credit report.
As increasing numbers of businesses and consumers rely on the INTERNET and other forms of electronic communication to conduct transactions, so too is illegal activity using the very same media on the rise. Fraudulent schemes conducted via the Internet are generally difficult to trace and to prosecute, and they cost individuals and businesses millions of dollars each year.
According to a JUSTICE DEPARTMENT web site devoted to the topic,
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Identity Theft (World of Forensic Science)
A forensic investigation can involve tracing the whereabouts of a person or their finances (a facet of forensic accounting). Someone who is eluding capture can adopt a new identity or assume the identity of someone else. The mechanisms of identity theft must be familiar to a forensic scientist.
Identity theft is the most popularnd most profitableorm of consumer fraud, and is among the fastest growing crimes in America. It encompasses all types of crime in which someone illegally obtains and fraudulently uses another person's confidential information, most often for financial gain. A person's Social Security number is valuable to an identity thief. Armed with the Social Security number, a criminal can open a bank account or credit card account, apply for a loan, and remove funds from varying financial accounts. In some cases, criminals have assumed the victim's identity altogether, incurring debt in the victim's name and committing crimes that become a part of the victim's criminal record.
The rate of identity theft or identity fraud so escalated in the late 1990s that the Social Security Administration declared it a national crisis.
Advanced computer and telecommunication technologies have armed thieves with new ways to obtain large amounts of personal data from afar. Hackers can spy on e-mail and Internet users, silently stealing passwords or banking information.
Old-fashioned methods also remain effective. "Dumpster diving" thieves sort through garbage for telltale signs of identity such as cleared checks, bank statements, even junk mail, such as "preapproved" credit cards. A "shoulder surfing" criminal spies on someone as they type in a pin number or password at an automatic teller machine (ATM). "Skimming" occurs when a cashier receives a credit card for a purchase, then surreptitiously swipes the card through a portable device that records the card information.
The threat to privacy has prompted a number of new laws governing fraud. In 1998, Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act. The legislation created a new offense of identity theft, making it a separate crime against the person whose identity was stolen. Prior to this legislation, identity theft was considered a crime only against the company the victim defrauded. Under the federal identity theft act, any person "knowingly transferring or using, 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" will be charged with a crime. Violators face a maximum term of 15 years in prison, a fine, and criminal forfeiture of any personal property used or intended to be used to commit the offense.
Identity thieves are often charged with other violations, including credit card fraud, computer fraud, and mail fraud. These felonies can carry substantial penalties and up to 30 years imprisonment. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the United States Secret Service, and the United States Postal Inspection Service help prosecute identity theft cases. Many states have also enacted legislation regarding identity theft. Arizona led the way with a specific identity theft statute passed in 1996. As the crime's serious threat became evident, more states followed suit. In 1999, 22 states passed identity theft legislation. According to a U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report published in 2002, identity theft can be a felony offense in 45 of the 49 states that have laws to address the problem. Two years after the passage of the federal identity theft act, the justice department testified that it had used the statute in 92 cases, according to a GAO report.
The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act requires the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to "log and acknowledge the receipt of complaints by individuals who certify that they have a reasonable belief" that someone stole their identity. The act enabled the creation of the Identity Theft Data Clearinghouse, a federal database for tracking complaints. Consumers call a toll-free hotline (1-877-ID-THEFT) to enter their complaint, and have the option to do so anonymously. When established in 1999, the FTC logged about 260 calls per week. By 2002, the hotline was receiving more than 3,000 contacts a week.
Identity fraud complaints and related information are shared electronically between the FTC and other law enforcement agencies nationwide via the Consumer Sentinel Network, a secure, encrypted Web site. The network was initially set up in 1997 as a way of tracking telemarketing scams. As of March 2005, more than 1,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, Canada, and Australia had enrolled in the FTC's Consumer Sentinel Network collaboration. Accessing the Network allows police to analyze identity theft cases and determine if there is a larger pattern of crime. At this time, comprehensive results involving the number of cases prosecuted under the federal identity theft act and state statutes are not available.
SEE ALSO Codes and ciphers; Computer forensics; Computer hackers; Document forgery; Technology and forensic science.