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Identity Theft

Abstract and Keywords

This article provides an overview about identity theft. It elaborates the uncertainty and difficulties in defining the crime. It describes patterns and incidences of identity theft and mentions the primary sources of data that illuminates the extent and costs of this crime. It discusses those who are victimized by the crime and those who engage in it. This article offers two theoretical explanations for the reasons for committing identity theft by offenders. It details the common techniques used to locate information and convert it into cash or goods. Policy ideas, including existing legislation directed towards identity theft prevention, and the policy implications of current knowledge about identity theft are also discussed. Finally, the article outlines the need for future research to understand the crime of identity theft and thus increase the likelihood that policy makers and law enforcement are effective in reducing this crime.

Keywords: identity theft, crime, techniques, law enforcement, policy

In the past ten years identity theft has captured the public's attention as “the fastest growing crime in America” (Cole and Pontell 2006, p. 125). Consumers are bombarded on a seemingly daily basis with stories detailing the latest data breach, the newest scams used by identity thieves, the dangers faced in doing routine transactions, and the latest products and services advertised to decrease the likelihood of victimization. Perhaps driven by this widespread attention by the media, identity theft has also captured the attention of lawmakers. In 1998 Congress passed the Identity Theft Assumption and Deterrence Act (18 USC 1028), making identity theft a federal offense and charging the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) with collecting complaints from consumers. State lawmakers have passed similar bills criminalizing the act of identity theft. Attention from lawmakers reached unprecedented levels at the end of 2007 as more than 200 bills focusing on the issue were pending at the state level (Aite Group 2007).

Identity theft is a complex crime and, as the following cases indicate, can take a variety of forms. It includes credit card and bank fraud, government benefits fraud, mortgage fraud, and a variety of other categories of fraud. Because it is often difficult to encompass identity theft within a single description, illustrative cases help shed light on the range of behaviors committed by identity thieves. In 2003 an identity thief placed holds on several victims' mail, picked up the mail at the post office, and used personally identifying information in the stolen mail to create counterfeit checks in the victims' names. The checks were then used to purchase items from various merchants. In 2007 a former Social Security Administration employee was charged with illegally disclosing personal information she took from a government computer that was then used by others to commit identity theft. Her accomplice supplied her with a name and date of birth, and in turn the employee (p. 248) obtained other identifying information, such as the person's social security number or mother's maiden name. This information was used to make approximately $2.5 million worth of unauthorized charges to credit card accounts. In 2007 a man was sentenced to five years in federal prison for committing identity theft by taking over credit card accounts belonging to others and opening new accounts. He used people's personally identifying information to order credit cards, including the information of his father, who had died the previous year.

While the media and lawmakers have focused much attention on identity theft in the past several years, academic research on the crime is limited. However, considering the available data collected by various agencies and organizations as well as existing research studies, we can conclude the following:

  • Although there is no set definition of identity theft, most agree that it includes the misuse of another individual's personal information to commit fraud.

  • Available data suggest that approximately seven to eight million people are victims of identity theft each year.

  • Persons between the ages of 18 and 55 with incomes greater than $75,000 are at greatest risk of victimization, and older persons, especially those over the age of 75, are at least risk.

  • Identity thieves come from a variety of backgrounds, criminal histories, and lifestyles.

  • Offenders use a variety of methods to acquire information, including buying information from other street offenders or employees of various businesses and agencies and stealing from mailboxes.

  • Offenders use a variety of methods to convert information to cash or goods, including using the information to acquire or produce additional identity-related documents such as driver's licenses and state identification cards, making checks, ordering new credit cards, and applying for various loans.

  • Although more research needs to be done, the following recommendations concerning preventions are based on what we know so far:increase the effort and risks of acquiring information and converting information into cash or goods; remove excuses for acquiring information and converting information to cash and goods; and advertise the potential legal consequences of identity theft.

This chapter provides an overview of what is known about identity theft. Section I elaborates on the ambiguity and difficulties in defining the crime. In section II we describe patterns and incidences of identity theft and identify the primary sources of data that have illuminated the extent and costs of this crime. Sections III and IV discuss what is known about those who are victimized by the crime and those who engage in it. In section V we offer two theoretical explanations for why offenders choose to commit identity theft. Section VI offers a description of the most common techniques to locate information and convert (p. 249) it into cash or goods. In section VII we discuss policy ideas, including existing legislation directed toward identity theft prevention, and the policy implications of current knowledge about identity theft. The final section presents an agenda for future research.

I. Defining Identity Theft

Despite the widespread attention given to identity theft, there is no general consensus regarding what behaviors and activities constitute the crime. Recent research has drawn attention to the problem with defining identity theft (see Newman and McNally 2005; Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS] 2006; Cole and Pontell 2006). In its report on identity theft, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (p. 2) explains that “there is no one universally accepted definition of identity theft as the term describes a variety of illegal acts involving theft or misuse of personal information.” The term identity theft has been used to describe a variety of offenses, including checking account fraud, counterfeiting, forgery, auto theft using false documentation, trafficking in human beings, and terrorism. Although no definitive definition of identity theft exists, basic patterns have emerged among policy makers and researchers trying to establish one. At the heart of these definitions is the idea that identity theft is “the misuse of another individual's personal information to commit fraud” (President's Identity Theft Task Force 2007, p. 2).

In 1998 identity theft became a federal crime when Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act (ITADA). According to ITADA, it is unlawful if a person “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.” Although the federal statute supplied the first legal definition of identity theft, it provided little help to researchers (Newman and McNally 2005). The Identity Theft Act of 1998, therefore, was an attempt to address the growing problem of repeat victimizations.

The difficulty in precisely defining identity theft is challenging for researchers. For example, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) includes three behaviors in its definition of identity theft: (1) unauthorized use or attempted use of existing credit cards, (2) unauthorized use or attempted use of other existing accounts such as checking accounts, and (3) misuse of personal information to obtain new accounts or loans or to commit other crimes (BJS 2006). The NCVS's inclusion of the unauthorized use or attempted use of existing credit cards, that is, credit card fraud, is an illustration of the definitional problem for researchers. If an offender steals a credit card, makes a purchase, and then discards the card, has the victim's identity been stolen? Does the use of a financial account identifier or (p. 250) identifying data constitute identity theft? An offender can use a credit card number (financial account identifier) to make unauthorized purchases or use a social security number (identifying data) to open a new credit card account and make purchases. In their study Copes and Vieraitis (2007) employed the definition of identity theft specified by the federal statute but included only offenders who had used identifying data to commit their crimes. Allison, Schuck, and Lersch (2005) used a similar definition of identity theft (use of or transfer of another's personal information) and treated credit card fraud and check fraud as separate offenses. The definitional problem also makes it difficult to gauge the extent and pattern of identity theft with data collected by public and private agencies. In sum, there is no consistent definition or use of the term identity theft across agencies or organizations that collect data.

II. Patterns of Identity Theft

Reliable information on the extent and cost of identity theft is difficult to ascertain with currently available data. Data sources include government agencies, nonprofit organizations, popular trade and media sources, and credit reporting agencies (Newman 2004). These sources provide varying estimates of the extent of identity theft and its costs to businesses and citizens. The discrepancies are likely due to the varying definitions of identity theft and methodologies used by data collectors. The paucity of data and the seriousness and perceived widespread incidence of identity theft prompted the BJS (2007a) to add questions to the NCVS in July 2004 to provide annual estimates of identity theft victimization.

The Identity Theft Data Clearinghouse is the most comprehensive database in the United States on the topic. It was implemented by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 1999 to collect consumer complaints related to identity theft. Using information from victims who report via phone or the Website the database includes information about the victim, contact information for the local police department that took the victim's report, type of offense, and the companies involved. According to the FTC, law enforcement can gain access to the database to find victims of identity theft, including their experiences, and other information about identity thieves to assist in their investigations (http://www.ftc.gov/idtheft).

The Internet Crime Complaint Center, an alliance between the National White Collar Crime Center and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, receives complaints related to Internet crime, including identity theft. The Center accepts online Internet crime complaints from persons who believe they were defrauded or from a third party to the complainant. The data include information on the victim and offender by state, demographic characteristics, monetary losses, and law enforcement contact (http://www.ic3.gov).

(p. 251) A variety of nonprofit and for-profit research groups have also gathered data on identity theft through Internet, mail, and telephone surveys and interviews. They include the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG; http://www.calpirg.org), Javelin Strategy and Research (http://www.javelinstrategy.com/research), Gartner, Inc. (http://www.gartner.com), Harris Interactive (http://www.harrisinteractive.com/news/), and the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC; http://www.idtheftcenter.org/). The data collected by these groups are based on information from victims of identity theft, with the exception of CALPIRG, which also conducted a study of police officers. Although not as long running and extensive as the FTC's data collection program, the ITRC has conducted annual victimization surveys since 2003. The surveys are limited to “confirmed” victims of identity theft who have worked with the ITRC.

A. Extent of Identity Theft

Numerous sources support the claim that identity theft has risen considerably over the past decade. Reports of identity theft increased from nearly 86,212 to 214,905 in three years, nearly a 250 percent increase (FTC 2004). According to the Gartner Survey and the Privacy and American Business (2003) survey, the incidence of identity theft almost doubled from 2001 to 2002. The Social Security Administration's Fraud Hotline received approximately 65,000 reports of social security number misuse in 2001, a more than fivefold increase from about 11,000 in 1998 (U.S. General Accounting Office 2002). It should be noted, however, that the FTC cautions that this dramatic increase in identity theft may be attributed in part to victims' greater willingness to report their victimization. Recent data from the FTC indicate that identity theft reports have been relatively stable over the past three years. There were approximately 247,000 reports filed in 2004 and again in 2006 (FTC 2007). Identity theft is the most prevalent form of fraud committed in the United States, constituting 36 percent (246,035) of the 674,354 complaints filed in the year 2006 (FTC 2007).

In 2007 the FTC released a report on estimates of the incidence and costs of identity theft. According to the report, approximately eight million people experienced identity theft in 2005, and total losses were nearly $16 billion (Synovate 2007). Estimates from the NCVS vary from the FTC report. These differences may be due to differences in methodologies. According to the NCVS, in 2005, 6.4 million households, representing 5.5 percent of the households in the United States, reported that at least one member of the household had been the victim of identity theft during the previous six months. The estimated financial loss reported by victimized households was about $3.2 billion (BJS 2006).

The FTC (2007) data also show regional variation: Arizona (147.8 per 100,000 residents), District of Columbia (131.5), Nevada (120.0), California (113.5), and Texas (110. 6) had the highest identity theft victimization rates; the lowest rates were reported in West Virginia (39.3), Iowa (34.9), South Dakota (30.2), North Dakota (p. 252) (29.7), and Vermont (28.5). The three metropolitan areas in the United States with the highest rates of identity theft complaints are Phoenix (178.3 per 100,000), Las Vegas (158.5), and Riverside, California (145.7). According to the NCVS data, households in the West were approximately 1.5 times more likely than those in the Northeast, Midwest, or South to experience identity theft, and rural households (4 percent) were less likely than urban (6 percent) or suburban (6 percent) households to have a member experience identity theft (BJS 2007a).

B. Clearance Rates

Clearance rates for identity theft are very low. Offenders are seldom detected and rarely apprehended. Allison, Schuck, and Lersch (2005) reported an average clearance rate of 11 percent over a three-year period. Similarly, law enforcement officials interviewed by Owens (2004) and Gayer (2003) estimated that only 10 and 11 percent, respectively, of identity theft cases received by their departments were solved. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office (2002), several obstacles make the investigation of identity theft cases and the likelihood of arrests difficult: identity theft cases can be highly complex, or the offender may have committed the theft in a jurisdiction different from where the victim resides, making it difficult to secure an arrest warrant. Limited departmental resources may be directed toward the investigation of violent and drug-related offenses rather than identity thefts. Allison, Schuck, and Lersch's study supported these claims and also noted that law enforcement found it difficult to obtain cooperation from affected financial institutions.

III. Victims

According to Anderson's (2006) analysis of the FTC's 2003 data, consumers ages 25 to 54, those with higher levels of income, particularly those with incomes greater than $75,000, households headed by women with three or more children, and consumers residing in the Pacific states are at the greatest risk. Older persons, particularly those age 75 and older, and persons in the mountain states are at the lowest risk. Educational attainment and marital status had no effect on risk of victimization (Anderson 2006). Similarly, Kresse, Watland, and Lucki's (2007) study of identity thefts reported to the Chicago Police Department from 2000 to 2006 found that over 65 percent of victims were between the ages of 20 and 44 and that young people (under age 20) and older persons (over 65) were underrepresented. The NCVS (BJS 2007b) reported that households headed by persons ages 18 to 24 were most likely to experience identity theft, and households headed by persons ages 65 and older were least likely. Households in the highest income bracket, those earning $75,000 or more, were also most likely to be victimized.

(p. 253) It is difficult to get a clear assessment of the costs incurred by victims of identity theft. In the more common forms of identity theft, it is typically credit card companies or merchants that lose money. In most cases, the victim whose information was misused is not legally responsible for the costs of the fraudulent transaction. However, victims may incur expenses from time spent resolving problems created by the theft. To deal with the crime they may have to close existing accounts and open new ones, dispute charges with merchants, and monitor their credit reports, all of which take time.

A CALPIRG survey found that the average amount of time spent by victims to regain financial health was 175 hours, and on average extended over two years. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center's 2003 survey, the average time spent by victims clearing their financial records is close to 600 hours. Moreover, victims of identity theft experience a great deal of emotional distress, including feelings of anger, helplessness, and mistrust, disturbed sleeping patterns, and lack of security (Davis and Stevenson 2004). Much of this distress stems from the hundreds of hours and large sums of money spent trying to resolve the problems caused by the theft of their identity (LoPucki 2001).

A number of organizations and agencies have attempted to assess the financial costs of identity theft to consumers and businesses, but here again the estimates vary across the available data. The FTC Identity Theft Clearinghouse estimates the total financial cost of identity theft at over $50 billion a year, with the average loss to businesses being $4,800 per incident and an average of $500 of out-of-pocket expenses to the victim whose identity was misused (Synovate 2003). Estimates from the most recent report are considerably lower, but the FTC cautions that changes may be attributed to changes in methodology between the 2003 and 2006 surveys. In the 2006 survey the average amount obtained by the offender was $1,882 and the average victim loss was $371 (Synovate 2007). The most recent data from the NCVS (BJS 2007b) showed that the estimated loss for all types of identity theft reported by victimized households averaged $1,620 per household. However, households that experienced misuse of personal information reported an average loss of $4,850, while theft of existing credit card accounts resulted in the lowest average losses ($980). These figures represent losses that may or may not have been covered by a financial institution, such as a credit card company.

A. Special Victims

Anyone can become a victim of identity theft, including newborns and the deceased. These groups are unique in that the people whose information is used illegally are not likely to incur any out-of-pocket expenses. Instead, their information is used by thieves to defraud others, usually businesses, or to hide from law enforcement. Historically, deceased victims have been thought to be the targets of choice for identity thieves (Newman and McNally 2005). According to CIFAS, a U.K. fraud prevention service, the fastest growing victim group is the deceased. They indicate (p. 254) that this type of identity theft has grown from 5,000 cases in 2001 to over 20,000 by 2004 (cited in Newman and McNally 2005). Identity thieves obtain information about deceased individuals in various ways. It is common for them to watch obituaries, steal death certificates, and even get information from Websites that offer Social Security Death Index files. Additionally, some thieves may be family members who take advantage of the situation. In a survey by Pontell, Brown, and Tosouni (2008), they found very few cases of deceased victims. They argue that this may be because the family is unaware of the victimization. If they are aware, it may have little effect on their lives as the cost of this type of identity theft is incurred by businesses and by family who must sort out the matter.

Child identity theft occurs when an offender uses a child's identifying information for personal gain. Using data from the Consumer Sentinel Network, Newman and McNally (2005) report that in 2004 there were 9,370 victims who were under the age of 18 (4 percent of all cases reported). The Identity Theft Resource Center estimates that they receive reports on approximately 104 to 156 child victims a year. Similarly, Kresse, Watland, and Lucki (2007) reported that only 3.5 percent of victims were under the age of 20.

The perpetrator of child identity theft is typically a family member who has easy access to personal information. According to Pontell, Brown, and Tosouni (2008), over three-quarters of those who stole the identities of victims under the age of 18 were the victim's parents. Similarly, the ITRC 2006 survey data indicated that in child identity theft cases, 69 percent of the offenders were one or both parents or a stepparent. In 54 percent of these cases the crime began when the victim was under 5 years of age (ITRC 2007). However, strangers also target children because of the lengthy amount of time between the theft of the information and the discovery of the offense. Evidence suggests that child identity theft is relatively rare, but when it does occur it takes a considerable amount of time to discover. Typically, the cost to the child whose identity was stolen does not take place until the child applies for a driver's license, enrolls in college, or applies for a loan or credit.

B. Victim-Offender Relationship

The relationship between victims and offenders in identity theft is difficult to assess with currently available data. Available data suggest that the majority of victims do not know their offenders. The FTC reports that 84 percent of victims were either unaware of the identity of the thief or did not personally know the thief, 6 percent of victims said a family member or relative was the person responsible for misusing their personal information, 8 percent reported that the thief was a friend, neighbor, or in-home employee, and 2 percent reported that the thief was a coworker (Synovate 2007). Although the figures are lower than those reported by the FTC study, Allison, Schuck, and Lersch (2005), Gordon et al. (2007), and the ITRC (2007) also report that the majority of victim-offender relationships, approximately 60 percent, involved individuals who did not know each other. In (p. 255) contrast, in Kresse, Watland, and Lucki's (2007) study of identity thefts reported to the Chicago Police Department, in over 60 percent of the cases where the means or method of theft was known (282 of 1,322), the victim's identity was stolen by a friend, relative, or person otherwise known to the victim. According to a victim survey administered by the Javelin Strategy and Research group (2005), for those cases where the perpetrator was known, 32 percent were committed by a family member or relative; 18 percent were committed by a friend, neighbor, or in-home employee; and 24 percent were committed by strangers outside of the workplace.

IV. Offenders

The paucity of research on identity theft coupled with the low clearance rate makes it difficult to have a clear idea of what those who engage in this offense are like. To gain an understanding of the type of individual who commits identity theft Gordon et al. (2007) examined closed U.S. Secret Service cases with an identity theft component from 2000 to 2006. They found that most offenders (42.5 percent) were between the ages of 25 and 34 when the case was opened; 33 percent fell within the 35 to 49 age group. Using data from a large metropolitan police department in Florida, Allison, Schuck, and Lersch (2005) found that offenders ranged in age from 28 to 49, with a mean age of 32.

Both studies found similar patterns regarding race. Gordon et al. (2007) found that the majority of the offenders were black (54 percent), with white offenders accounting for 38 percent and fewer than 5 percent of offenders being Hispanic. Allison, Schuck, and Lersch (2005) found that the distribution of offenders was 69 percent black, 27 percent white, and less than 1 percent Hispanic or Asian. The two studies differed in terms of the sex of offenders. Gordon et al. found that nearly 66 percent of the offenders were male; Allison. Schuck, and Lersch found that 63 percent of offenders were female.

Gordon et al. (2007) also examined the place of birth of the offenders. They found that nearly one-quarter of offenders were foreign-born. The countries most represented, in rank order, were Mexico, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, Cuba, and Israel.

In their qualitative study of identity thieves, Copes and Vieraitis (2007, 2008) asked convicted federal offenders to describe their past and current family situations. Most offenders were currently or had been married in their lifetimes: 25 percent of the offenders were married, 31 percent were separated or divorced, 32 percent had never been married, and 5 percent were widowed. Approximately 75 percent had children. The majority had at least some college.

Prior arrest patterns indicated that a large proportion had engaged in various types of offenses, including drug, property, and violent crimes (Copes and Vieraitis 2007, 2008). Yet the majority claimed that they committed only identity (p. 256) thefts or comparable frauds (e.g., check fraud). In total, 63 percent of the offenders reported prior arrests; most were arrested for financial fraud or identity theft (44 percent), but drug use or sales (19 percent) and property crimes (22 percent) were also relatively common. This is consistent with the study by Gordon et al. (2007), who found that a majority of defendants had no prior arrests, but those who did tended to commit fraud and theft-related offenses.

Copes and Vieraitis (2007) also questioned identity thieves about their prior drug use. Approximately 58 percent had tried drugs in their lifetime, mostly marijuana, cocaine in various forms, and methamphetamine. Only 37 percent reported having been addicted. Of those who said that they were using drugs while committing identity theft, only 24 percent reported that the drug use contributed to their offense. Gordon et al. (2007) discovered that nearly 10 percent of the defendants whose cases they studied had previous arrests for drug-related offenses.

The common perception is that identity theft is a white-collar crime, so most would expect those who commit the bulk of these crimes to resemble typical white-collar offenders. They are just as likely, however, to exhibit the characteristics of street offenders as of more privileged offenders. Identity theft appears to attract offenders from a wide range of family backgrounds, criminal histories, and lifestyles.

V. Explaining Identity Theft

The bulk of academic research has focused on describing how identity thieves get sensitive information, how they convert this information into valued goods, the extent and scope of the problem, and the characteristics of victims. Little has been done to construct a theory to explain these patterns. This section summarizes two explanations as to why identity theft is an attractive choice for some.

A. Lifestyle and Criminal Choice

To understand why people choose to commit crime, it is important to examine the worlds in which they spend much of their lives (Shover 1996). To do this it is necessary to situate their decisions within the principal lifestyle that frames their choices. Numerous studies of street-level property offenders and fraudsters find that their primary motivation is the need for money (Shover 1996; Shover, Coffey, and Sanders 2004), and this seems to be true of identity thieves. Overwhelmingly, the identity thieves interviewed by Copes and Vieraitis (2008) claimed that the sole reason they became involved in these crimes was for the financial rewards. Indeed, identity theft can be richly rewarding. Estimates of the amount of money gained from individual identity thefts evidences these claims (BJS 2006; Gordon et al. 2007).

(p. 257) How do they spend the money gained through their illegal enterprises? Offender motivations are best understood in the context of their lifestyles. They hail from a variety of backgrounds, but it is possible to group them into two categories: those embedded in streetlife and striving to lead a “life as party” and those trying to maintain a comfortable middle-class life. Thus the proceeds of their crimes are used to fund their chosen lifestyles. For those living a “life as party” (Shover and Honaker 1992; Jacobs and Wright 1999), proceeds are more likely to be spent maintaining lifestyles filled with drug use and fast living rather than putting money aside for long-term plans. Money is used to get high, live fast, and spend quickly. These offenders have much in common with persistent street thieves who indulge in streetlife.

However, not all indulged in such a lifestyle. Some show restraint in their spending; many use their stolen money to support what would generally be considered a conventional life or to drift between the two lifestyles. These offenders make efforts to conceal their misdeeds from their friends and family and to present a law-abiding front to outsiders. They use the proceeds of identity theft to finance comfortable middle-class lives, including paying rent or a mortgage, buying expensive vehicles, and splurging on the latest technological gadgets. Their lifestyles are also in line with the telemarketers interviewed by Shover, Coffey, and Sanders (2004). This is not to say that they do not indulge in the trappings of drugs and partying, as many do. Nevertheless, these offenders put forth an image of middle-class respectability.

B. Neutralizing Identity Theft

Although the financial benefits of their crimes are important, offenders must be able to make sense of their actions and maintain a positive self-image even when violating the law. While acknowledging that they needed money to support their lifestyles, identity thieves will not engage in just any crime. They choose identity theft because they can more easily justify their actions (Sykes and Matza 1957; Maruna and Copes 2005). It is by use of verbal techniques that internal controls that normally serve to check deviant motivations and decisions are “rendered inoperative, and the individual is freed to engage in [deviance] without serious damage to his self-image” (Sykes and Matza 1957, p. 667). These verbalizations are more than simply rhetorical attempts to relieve cognitive dissonance or to save face in front of questioning others; they are instrumental in the persistence of crime. While these justifications for wrongdoing may not have been the spark that set their actions in motion, the use of these rhetorical devices facilitates the continued commission of crime.

According to Copes, Vieraitis, and Jochum (2007), the most common way identity thieves justify their crimes is by denying that they caused any “real harm” to “actual individuals.” It is not uncommon for identity thieves to argue that stealing identities is only a minor hassle to victims and that no real harm is caused because (p. 258) the victim can repair any credit damage with a few calls and, consequently, not suffer any direct financial loss. This indicates that these criminals draw on incorrect yet common stereotypes regarding the harmlessness of white-collar crimes in order to neutralize their deviant behaviors. Thus a direct connection between the social realities of white-collar and common crime does not exist in the social worlds of these offenders, and this is an important element in the justification of their crimes.

When identity thieves do acknowledge victims, they describe them as large, “faceless” organizations that deserve victimization. Identity thieves argue that the only people who lose from their crimes are banks, corporations, and other victims who are thought not to deserve sympathy. When portraying victims as faceless or “plastic,” distancing oneself cognitively from the crime becomes remarkably easy.

Individuals who work within an organization to carry out their crimes sometimes rely on the diffusion of responsibility to excuse themselves. Although large amounts of money are eventually appropriated, many of the self-proclaimed low-level organizational members claim that they play only a minimal role in the crime; thus, by comparison, they should not be judged like others. Additionally, these individuals point to the small amount of money they make as evidence that they “really didn't do anything.”

Many identity thieves also seek to make sense of and justify their crimes by pointing out that their actions are done with the noble intention of helping people. They set aside their better judgment because they think their loyalties to friends and family are more important at that time. These offenders argue that their crimes were done to help friends in need or to support their families.

VI. Techniques

Identity thieves use a variety of methods to acquire a victim's personal information and convert that information into cash or goods. Data from victimization surveys and interviews with offenders are used to describe the techniques identity thieves commonly employ to commit their crimes.

A. Acquiring Identities

A key component to the successful commission of identity theft is obtaining people's personal information. It is relatively easy for offenders to do so. Personal information is obtained from wallets, purses, homes, cars, offices, and businesses or institutions that maintain customer, employee, patient, or student records (Newman 2004). Social security numbers, which provide instant access (p. 259) to a person's personal information, are widely used for identification and account numbers by insurance companies, universities, cable television companies, military identification, and banks. The thief may steal a wallet or purse, work at a job that affords access to credit records or purchase the information from someone who does (e.g., employees who have access to credit reporting databases, commonly available in auto dealerships, realtors' offices, banks, and other businesses that approve loans), or find victims by stealing mail, sorting through the trash, or searching the Internet (Lease and Burke 2000; LoPucki 2001; Davis and Stevenson 2004; Newman 2004).

Based on victim surveys, most offenders commit identity theft by obtaining a person's credit card information, which they use to forge a credit card in the victim's name and make purchases (Privacy and American Business 2003). According to the Privacy and American Business survey, 34 percent of victims reported that their information was obtained this way. In addition, 12 percent reported that someone stole or obtained a paper or computer record with their personal information on it; 11 percent said someone stole their wallet or purse; 10 percent said someone opened charge accounts in stores in their name; 7 percent said someone opened a bank account in their name or forged checks; 7 percent said someone got to their mail or mailbox; 5 percent said they lost their wallet or purse; 4 percent said someone obtained the information from a public record; and 3 percent said someone created a false identity to get government benefits or payments (Privacy and American Business 2003).

According to the FTC data, of those who knew how their information was obtained (43 percent), 16 percent said it was stolen by someone they personally knew; 7 percent said it was stolen during a purchase or financial transaction; 5 percent reported their information was obtained from a stolen wallet or purse; 5 percent cited theft from a company that maintained their information; and 2 percent reported theft from the mail (Synovate 2007). In organized rings a person is planted as an employee in a mortgage lender's office, doctor's office, or human resources department to more easily access information. Similarly, these groups will bribe insiders such as employees of banks, car dealerships, government, and hospitals to get the identifying information. Others have obtained credit card numbers by soliciting information using bogus e-mails (phishing) or simply by watching someone type in a calling card number or credit card number (Davis and Stevenson 2004).

Interviews with offenders indicate that they use a variety of methods to procure information and then convert this information into cash or goods. According to Copes and Vieraitis (2008), most identity thieves did not specialize in a single method but preferred to use a variety of strategies. Although some offenders acquired identities from their place of employment, mainly mortgage companies, the most common method of obtaining a victim's information was to buy it. Offenders bought identities from employees of various businesses and state agencies who had access to personal information such as name, address, date of (p. 260) birth, and social security number. Information was purchased from employees of banks, credit agencies, a state law enforcement agency, mortgage companies, state departments of motor vehicles, hospitals, doctors' offices, universities, car dealerships, and furniture stores. Offenders also purchased information from persons they knew socially or with whom they were acquainted on the streets. In some cases, the identity thieves bought information from other offenders, who obtained it from burglaries, thefts from motor vehicles, prostitution, and pickpocketing.

B. Converting Information

After they obtain a victim's information, offenders often convert that information into cash or goods. Offenders may use the information to acquire or produce additional identity-related documents, such as drivers' licenses or state identification cards. They may use these new documents to conceal illegal activities and avoid arrest or to conduct a variety of financial transactions. Offenders apply for credit cards in the victims' names (including major credit cards and department store credit cards), open new bank accounts and deposit counterfeit checks, withdraw money from existing bank accounts, apply for loans, open utility or phone accounts, and apply for public assistance programs.

According to the FTC (2007), the most common type of identity theft was credit card fraud, followed by “other” identity theft, phone or utilities fraud, bank fraud, employment-related fraud, government documents or benefits fraud, and loan fraud.1 Although not directly comparable due to differences in methodology, units of analysis, and definition of identity theft, data from the NCVS indicate that of the 6.4 million households reporting that at least one member of the household had been the victim of identity theft, the most common type was unauthorized use of existing credit cards (BJS 2007a).

According to Copes and Vieraitis's (2008) study of offenders, the most common strategy for converting stolen identities into cash was by applying for credit cards. Most of the offenders used the information to order new credit cards, but in a few cases the information was used to get the credit card agency to issue a duplicate card on an existing account. They used credit cards to buy merchandise for their own personal use, to resell the merchandise to friends or acquaintances, or to return the merchandise for cash. Offenders also used the checks that are routinely sent to credit card holders to deposit in the victim's account and then withdraw cash or to open new accounts. Offenders also applied for store credit cards such as from department stores and home improvement stores. Other common strategies for converting information into cash or goods included producing counterfeit checks that they cashed at grocery stores or used to purchase merchandise or pay bills, opening new bank accounts to deposit checks or to withdraw money from an existing account, and applying for and receiving loans.

(p. 261) VII. Policy

Policy makers at federal and state levels have generally addressed the problem of identity theft by enacting legislation to define the crime, establish penalties for offenders, and improve protection to consumers and victims. We provide an overview of this legislation and then turn our attention to the policy implications of our current knowledge of identity theft. Because there are a number of well-publicized efforts to educate consumers on how to reduce their chance of victimization (e.g., shredding documents with personally identifying information, limiting the use of social security numbers) we focus our discussion on situational crime prevention techniques targeted at offenders. These techniques include increasing the effort an offender must use to acquire and convert information, increasing the risks of getting caught, removing excuses that may be used to justify their crime, and changing offenders' perceptions of punishment.

A. Identity Theft Legislation

A wide range of federal laws covers identity theft, including laws pertaining to social security fraud, welfare fraud, computer fraud, wire fraud, and financial institution fraud. This review focuses on specific laws designed and enacted to criminalize the act of identity theft. The first federal law enacted to prevent identity theft was the 1998 Identity Theft Assumption and Deterrence Act (18 USC 1028). This Act made identity theft a separate crime against the person whose identity was stolen, broadened the scope of the offense to include the misuse of information and documents, and provided punishment of up to 15 years of imprisonment and a maximum fine of $250,000. Under U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines a sentence of 10 to 16 months' incarceration can be imposed even if there is no monetary loss and the perpetrator has no prior criminal convictions (U.S. General Accounting Office 2002). Violations of this crime are subject to investigation by federal law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Secret Service, the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the Social Security Administration's Office of the Inspector General.

In 2004 the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act (ITPEA; H.R. Doc. 1731, 108th Congr. 2 [July 2004]) established a new federal crime: aggravated identity theft, defined as the knowing and unlawful transfer, possession, or use of a means of identification of another person during and in relation to any of more than 100 felony offenses, including mail, bank, and wire fraud, immigration and passport fraud, and any unlawful use of a social security number. The law mandates a minimum of two years in prison consecutive to the sentence for the underlying felony. In addition, if the offense is committed during and in relation to one of the more than 40 federal terrorism-related felonies, the penalty is a minimum mandatory five years in prison consecutive to the sentence for the underlying felony.

(p. 262) In an effort to protect consumers against identity theft and assist those who have been victimized, Congress passed the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA; H.R. Doc. 2622, 108th Congr. 1 [Dec. 2003]) in 2003. The Act grants consumers the right to one credit report free of charge every year; requires merchants to leave all but the last five digits of a credit card number off store receipts; requires a national system of fraud detection to increase the likelihood that thieves will be caught; requires a nationwide system of fraud alerts to be placed on credit files; requires regulators to create a list of red flag indicators of identity theft drawn from patterns and practices of identity thieves; and requires lenders and credit agencies to take action before a victim knows a crime has occurred. In addition, FACTA created a National Fraud Alert system.

To stop credit grantors from opening new accounts, FACTA also allows consumers to place three types of fraud alerts on their credit files. Individuals who suspect they are, or are about to become, the victim of identity theft can place an “initial alert” in their file. Individuals who have been victims of identity theft and have filed a report with a law enforcement agency can then request an “extended alert.” After an extended alert is activated, it will stay in place for seven years, and the victim may order two free credit reports within 12 months. For the next five years, credit agencies must exclude the consumer's name from lists used to make prescreened credit or insurance offers. Finally, military officials are able to place an “active duty alert” when they are on active duty or assigned to service away from their usual duty station.

States have also passed laws in efforts to protect consumers and victims of identity theft. To date, all but two states have laws designed specifically to counter identity theft. In 2006 states continued to strengthen laws to protect consumers by increasing penalties and expanding law enforcement's role in investigating cases. Laws were also enacted to assist victims of identity theft, including prohibiting discrimination against an identity theft victim, allowing the records related to the theft to be expunged, and creating programs to help victims in clearing their name and financial records (see http://www.ncsl.org for each state's laws). Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that allow consumers to freeze their credit files. In addition, as of November 1, 2007, the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) offer the security freeze to consumers living in the 11 states that have not adopted security freeze laws and to all consumers in the four states that limit the option to victims of identity theft (http://www.consumersunion.org/campaigns/learn_more/003484indiv.html).

The effectiveness of legislation pertaining to identity theft has not yet been determined. These laws have provided law enforcement with the tools to fight identity thieves, but whether thieves have desisted because of these laws is unclear. If identity thieves are like other fraudsters, and indicators suggest that they are, then they will adapt to law enforcement strategies aimed at stopping them. Thus, as Holtfreter and Holtfreter (2006) suggest, ITADA, FACTA, and ITPEA will likely be amended to adjust to changing technology and adaptations of thieves.

(p. 263) B. Situational Crime Prevention

In contrast to the broad-brush programs typical of crime-prevention initiatives just a few years ago, the past two decades have seen increasing acceptance of the need for better focused efforts. Referred to broadly as “situational crime prevention,” this approach emphasizes measures directed at highly specific forms of crime that involve the management, design, or manipulation of the immediate environment in as systematic and permanent a way as possible to reduce the opportunities for crime and increase its risks as perceived by a wide range of offenders (Clarke 1983). Grounded in rational choice theory, the logic of situational crime prevention suggests that the level of criminal activity can be reduced by manipulating features of given social situations so as to cause potential offenders to believe that excessive effort would be required to secure criminal gains, which likely would be small in any case, or that the risks are too high. A variety of techniques have been identified for reducing criminal opportunities by causing change in one or more of these conditions (Clarke 1997).

1. Increase Effort and Risk

According to Copes and Vieraitis (2007), the situations where identity thieves are most exposed to law enforcement are getting the appropriate information and entering banks or stores to cash in on the crime. Controlling access to places such as dumpsters and mailboxes and monitoring how documents are disposed of (e.g., shredding documents with identifying information) would restrict the number of areas from which offenders get their information (see Newman and McNally 2005 for a review). Media campaigns warning individuals to engage in such target-hardening actions are widespread; however, such programs and any other measures for controlling access to information will be ineffective if information is compromised by individuals who have legitimate access to these data.

Organizations whose employees have access to personal information must therefore take steps to reduce the likelihood that identity thieves can acquire this information from employees. Such strategies may include limiting the number of employees with access to the information, conducting careful background checks of employees, establishing additional oversight and independent checking mechanisms, maintaining a positive work environment, and alerting employees to the serious consequences of identity theft for both victims and perpetrators.

Most crime reduction strategies focus on preventing the acquisition of information by encouraging individuals and businesses to protect their information, but this is not the only strategy. Banks could make simple changes in procedures that would increase the effort and risk of identity theft. For instance, they could require passwords to withdraw money from accounts or cash checks, even when customers engage in these transactions in person. This strategy would clearly not deter thieves who have inside partners or who gain access to the bank's computer system, but these types of identity theft are rare.

(p. 264) Stores should require identification when customers pay by check or credit card. Although many identity thieves produce fake identification, not all have the capability of doing so effectively. For this strategy to be effective, it is necessary for all stores to be consistent in checking identification. With experience and inside knowledge, identity thieves learn which stores check identification and what dollar amounts require proof of identification or manager approval. If some stores do not follow these policies, target displacement is likely to occur (Clarke 1983). The problem with many antitheft programs is that, “within easy reach of every house with a burglar alarm, or car with an antitheft device, are many others without such protection” (Clarke 1983, p. 246). Thus, it is necessary that all stores require proof of identification or there will be too many suitable targets within easy reach of offenders and the deterrent effect of the program will be undercut.

2. Remove Excuses

Situational crime prevention programs have been developed based on the neutralization theoretic premise. The theory is that by learning the linguistic devices that offenders use to make their crimes palatable, program designers can attack these belief systems. By “neutralizing the neutralizations,” such programs would deny offenders the opportunity to define their actions as noncriminal, and thus they would refrain from criminal behavior (Clarke 1997; Clarke and Homel 1997; Copes and Williams 2007). True to the roots of situational crime prevention, removing excuses in this way does not entail making long-term changes in the disposition of the offender, as do cognitive-based programs in correctional settings. Instead, situational crime prevention theorists argue that programs geared toward removing excuses should still focus on highly specific forms of crime and should be presented at the time criminal decisions are being made. The idea is to “stimulate feelings of conscience at the point of contemplating the commission of a specific kind of offense” (Clarke 1997, p. 24).

These principles can be applied to identity theft. For this approach to work, it is necessary to present the antineutralization message at the immediate situation of the crime. Although this may prove difficult for identity theft, there are ways it can be accomplished successfully. A large proportion of the identity thefts described by participants in Copes and Vieraitis's (2007) study required thieves to go into banks to cash checks or withdraw funds. It is here that messages could be placed reminding offenders that their actions harm individuals. The goal is to make potential offenders recognize the harm they are doing in those locations where they carry out their crimes. Publicity campaigns similar to those used to deter movie piracy and cable theft could be implemented for identity theft. The best locations for these campaigns are banks, retail stores, and any other location where thieves must go to convert stolen identities into cash or merchandise.

Identity thieves also obtain information from people who have legitimate access to this information; dishonest employees play a large role in the prevalence of identity theft. The “remove excuses” campaigns would also serve to educate (p. 265) employees who might be tempted to misuse their position to illegally sell sensitive information to others (Pelfrey 1984; Lim 2002).

3. Change Perceptions

Identity thieves in Copes and Vieraitis's (2008) study repeatedly made reference to their expectations of lenient punishment if they were apprehended. With the promise of large rewards with relatively little effort and perceptions of inconsequential punishments, it is easy to understand why they chose to commit identity theft. But the actual punishments these offenders received typically exceeded their expectations. Instead of being given probation or a year of incarceration, they were given sentences ranging from 12 to 360 months.

The underestimates of potential sentences likely contributed to their habituation to identity theft. It is therefore likely that educating potential thieves about the true consequences of being convicted, at least at the federal level, could persuade them to desist. It is always a difficult task to educate target populations about the costs of crime, but it is possible. Following principles of situational crime prevention, these deterrent messages can also be delivered at the scene of the crime. Just as messages informing offenders of the real harm they cause can be presented at the locations of the crimes, so too can these deterrent messages.

Decades of deterrence research have shown that perceived punishments have a greater deterrent effect than actual punishments, so it is necessary to change the perceptions of punishment held by identity thieves. Campaigns designed to create the impression that law enforcement agencies consider identity theft to be a serious crime and that cases will be prosecuted to their fullest extent may go a long way in changing offender perceptions about this offense. If successful, these informational campaigns would likely reduce identity theft. Although there is disagreement about the effectiveness of publicity campaigns, “publicity campaigns may represent a powerful yet cost-effective tool in crime prevention” if planned properly (Johnson and Bowers 2003, p. 497).

VIII. Conclusion

Identity theft is a widespread problem affecting approximately eight million people each year. A common scenario involves an offender who obtains or buys a victim's personally identifying information from an acquaintance or employee of an agency with access to such information. The offender then uses the information to acquire or produce additional identity-related documents, such as drivers' licenses and state identification cards, make checks, order new credit cards, and cash checks. The victim is likely between the ages of 18 and 55 with an income greater than $75,000 and does not know the offender.

(p. 266) Like most offenders, identity thieves are motivated by a need for money. For some identity thieves the need for money is fueled by a desire to maintain a partying lifestyle characterized by drug use and fast living. Others use the proceeds of their crimes to support a conventional life, including paying rent or a mortgage and utilities or buying the latest technological gadgets. Although the desire for money is a common motivation among street-level and white-collar offenders, the selection of identity theft as their crime of choice may be attributed to the ease with which they can justify their actions. Many identity thieves are able to justify their crimes by denying that they caused any real harm to actual individuals.

Most official attempts to control identity theft have been in the form of legislation. As discussed in section VII, federal and state lawmakers have approached the problem by passing legislation defining identity theft as a crime, delineating penalties for offenders, and increasing protection to consumers and victims of identity theft. In addition to legislative action, numerous nonprofit agencies, organizations, and private companies have launched campaigns to educate consumers on how to protect their personally identifying information. Although limited, the currently available data suggest that certain situational crime prevention techniques may be useful in decreasing the incidence of identity theft. These techniques include increasing the effort and risks, removing excuses, and advertising consequences.

To understand the crime of identity theft and thus increase the likelihood that policy makers and law enforcement are effective in reducing this crime, more research needs to be done. First, a number of laws have been passed to provide help to consumers and victims of identity theft and to assist law enforcement. However, the effectiveness of these laws has not yet been assessed. Although much of this legislation is relatively new, future research should evaluate the degree to which legislation is an effective strategy in reducing identity theft. Second, there is very little research on identity thieves themselves. To date, only three published studies examine offenders (Allison, Schuck, and Lersch 2005; Copes and Vieraitis 2007; Gordon et al. 2007), and of those only Copes and Vieraitis interviewed identity thieves. Researchers should consider further developing this line of inquiry by expanding the sample of identity thieves to include active offenders and offenders convicted at federal, state, and local levels.

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                                                                                          Notes:

                                                                                          (1.) “Other identity theft” includes the following subtypes: uncertain, miscellaneous, Internet or e-mail, evading the law, medical, apartment or house rental, insurance, property rental fraud, securities and other investments, child support, bankruptcy, and magazine subscriptions. Bank fraud includes fraud involving checking and savings accounts and electronic fund transfers.