Congress declared identity theft a federal crime in 1998 when it passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act. This offense, in most circumstances, carries a maximum term of 15 years imprisonment, a fine, and criminal forfeiture of any personal property used or intended to be used to commit the offense.
Identity fraud schemes may also involve violations of other statutes, such as identification fraud, credit card fraud, computer fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, or financial institution fraud. Each of these federal offenses are felonies that carry substantial penalties - in some cases, up to 30 years imprisonment, fines and criminal forfeiture.
Federal prosecutors work with federal investigative agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Secret Service and the United States Postal Inspection Service to prosecute identity theft and fraud cases.
According to the Secret Service, its investigations show a jump in potential losses due to identity theft, from $851 million in 1998 to $1.4 billion in 2000. While some of this increase may be due to an increase in investigations of the crime, the most likely reason is the advancement of the Internet and technology in general.
Reporting to the FTC
Part of the problem is the fact that the United States has no formal, centralized identification system. The most widely used ID card is the drivers' license, which has often been issued without good verification of the person's identity. The social security number that is used for verifying identity and setting up so many different types of accounts, loans and other financial necessities can be found, bought or stolen more easily than ever. It's found on many insurance cards, employment records, student ID cards, pay stubs and, of course, financial account records. The bottom line is: Protect your social security number at all costs. Don't give it out unless you have to, and don't carry the card with you.
Most states have recently improved the identification requirements for people seeking drivers' licenses. Rather that being able to bring someone in to vouch for your identity, more concrete pieces of identification are required, and then there are still some states that only issue a temporary license until your documents have gone through their fraud unit.
Future efforts for preventing identity theft will most likely come through technological advancements that incorporate some physical aspect of a person's body in order to verify identity. Known as biometrics, this type of authentication uses individually unique physical attributes such as fingerprints, iris/retina, facial structure, speech, facial thermograms, hand geometry and written signature. It can be used to authenticate both your identity and the party you are dealing with. For more information on biometrics, check out How Biometrics Works.
Additional research is being done with digital signatures. These include include public and private key encryption, as well as a third party verification of authenticity, such as with Public Key Infrastructure (PKI).
For more information on identity theft and emerging identification technologies, check out the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- How Pickpockets Work
- How Social Security Numbers Work
- How Credit Cards Work
- How Credit Reports Work
- How Biometrics Works
- How Encryption Works
- How Long-Distance Scams Work
- How Wiretapping Works
- How Workplace Surveillance Works
- How Facial Recognition Systems Work
- How Fingerprint Scanners Work
- How Biometrics Works
- How Phishing Works
- Is it possible to detect if someone is illegally using my phone line?
- How do big city "shell games" and "three card monte" games work?
- Social Security Online Privacy Act
- Federal Trade Commission's Identity Theft Web Site
- Almanac of Policy Issues: Identity Theft: Growing Prevalence and Cost
- The Biometric Consortium