What are the Legal Consequences of Identity Theft in California?

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Identity theft happens when someone takes personal information, like a name, Social Security number, date of birth or financial account numbers, and uses it to benefit themselves. These crimes can create a long-lasting financial mess for the victims, but, in California, those who take other's identities face consequences as well.

Elements of Identity Theft in California

Identity theft law in California sets out the elements of this criminal offense. What constitutes identity theft? It's when someone steals another persons private identifying information and uses it illegally.

Under California's Penal Code, identity theft can happen in a number of ways. The four main types of identity theft include:

  1. Obtaining and using another's information without consent for an unlawful purpose.
  2. Obtaining and using another's information without consent to commit fraud.
  3. Selling or giving another person's personal information to someone else without consent with the intent to commit fraud.
  4. Selling or giving another person's personal information to someone else without consent knowing that the information will be used to commit fraud.

Note that it is not enough for the prosecutor in California to show that a person possessed stolen information. To get a conviction under California Penal Code 530.5, a prosecutor must prove that the person used that information either in an unlawful manner or with fraudulent intent.

Typical Victims of Identity Theft

A person does not have to be careless to be a victim of identity theft. It happens every day to people in all walks of life including savvy business people, famous celebrities and ordinary working people.

Identity theft crimes can lead to real problems for the victims. The persons who take another's identity can open new lines of credit, buy phones or guns, get medical services or make insurance claims, all in the victim's name. The first the victim hears about it might be when a collection agency contacts him or her demanding payment for loans in his or her name.

Read More: How to Report Identity Theft to Social Security

Identity Theft and California Liability

Identity theft in California is not automatic felony, the more serious type of crime in California. It's a wobbler offense. That means that the prosecutor can either charge the crime of identity theft as a misdemeanor or a felony. It depends on the circumstances as well as thief's prior criminal history.

What's the maximum possible sentence for identity theft under state law in California? If the prosecutor charges the crime as a felony, an identity thief faces up to three years in jail and/or a fine up to $10,000. If charged as a misdemeanor, the maximum is one year in county jail and a maximum fine of $1,000. If this doesn't seem like enough to you, you'll be glad to hear that the sentence is heavier in federal court.

Identity Theft and Federal Liability

Identity theft is both a federal crime and a state crime in California. The federal law, enacted in 1998, is called the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act and found at Title 18 of the U.S. Code Section 1028. It is applicable to all identity theft that occurs in the country. It is more comprehensive than the state law.

The federal law prohibits some acts that are not included as violations in the identity theft law in California. These include:

  1. Knowingly presenting someone else's identification as one's own.
  2. Knowingly giving away or selling a stolen identification document.
  3. Knowingly having, making, selling, giving away or trafficking equipment that will be used to produce false identification documents.

In a stark contrast to the California law, conviction of the federal offense carries a prison sentence of up to 30 years.