Identity theft is nothing new. It’s been around since time began, but it’s taken on a new dimension in the age of technology when people can do personal business remotely from a computer without ever showing their faces. In its most basic form, identity theft happens when someone pretends to be you; the thief literally steals who you are. In and of itself, this is a crime, but when the thief also uses your identity for personal gain, it compounds the offense.
Ways You Might Have Your Identity Stolen
Accessing the details of your identity can be frighteningly easy for a thief. He doesn’t necessarily have to steal your bank card, credit card or checkbook. He may reach out to you by phone or email, professing to be with a company or organization you trust, and simply ask for some tidbit of personal identifying information like your Social Security number or birth date, your credit card or bank account numbers, even your mother’s maiden name. Armed with a combination of this data, he can open accounts, apply for credit or get ID, such as a driver’s license, in your name. He may be able to access your existing accounts. Victims can lose significant amounts of money and have their credit histories severely damaged. Even if a thief doesn’t do anything with the information he gathers about you, taking it is still a crime.
What You Can Do
If you believe you’re a victim of identity theft, you can call the Federal Trade Commission to report it. The staff can guide you as to what to do next. You can also make a report with your local police department. Both these steps can help law enforcement zero in on the thief. Beyond this, you can act to mitigate or prevent damage to your accounts or credit history by notifying the credit bureaus, your bank, check verification companies and even the post office, as thieves sometimes divert mail by submitting change-of-address forms so they can access your sensitive information or make sure you don’t receive bills for accounts you never opened.
Assuming your efforts lead to the apprehension of the thief, penalties vary from state to state and may depend on what he does with your identity. If he accessed your information but never used it, this might only lead to a misdemeanor conviction. He might not even go to jail, but just be placed on probation, particularly if this was his first offense. If he is sentenced to jail, the penalty for a misdemeanor offense can range from 30 days to a year in jail, depending on the degree of the offense and your state’s penal code. Sometimes the penalty depends on the extent of monetary damages you suffer. For example, in Virginia, a loss of $200 or more increases the charge to a felony. Under federal law, a prison term of up to 15 years is possible if the theft involved your driver’s license, birth certificate or other identification issued by the government, up to 20 years if drugs or violence are involved and up to 30 years if the theft is linked to terrorism.
In addition to incarceration, courts often impose fines and order restitution for identity theft crimes. Fines for misdemeanor convictions can be as much as $1,000, while they can reach in excess of $5,000 when the nature of the crime is considered a felony. Fines are punitive in nature and are paid to the court or the government, whereas restitution is typically paid to the victim. Restitution is a sum of money intended to make you whole again, or at least as close to whole as possible by reimbursing you with the money that was stolen from you. Some courts, such as those in Virginia, can even order the defendant to pay the costs of repairing your credit if it’s damaged.