Identity theft has profound consequences for its victims. They can have their bank accounts wiped out, credit histories ruined, and jobs and valuable possessions taken away. Some victims have even been arrested for crimes they did not commit.
Identity theft and identity fraud refer to crimes in which someone wrongfully obtains and uses another individual’s personal data in a way that involves fraud or deception, often for economic gain. However, even those victims who suffer no financial loss can experience serious consequences related to the theft.
Identity theft generally occurs in three stages: acquisition, use, and discovery. The crime may begin with a lost or stolen wallet, credit card information stolen during a transaction, a data breach, a computer virus, phishing, or a scam. Thieves may also use a victim’s personal information to commit medical identity theft, tax fraud, and governmental benefits fraud.
In the United States, many people have reported that unauthorized persons have taken funds out of their bank or other financial accounts, or, in the worst cases, taken over their identities altogether, running up vast debts and committing crimes.
In one notorious case, the criminal charged more than $100,000 on credit cards; obtained a federal home loan; bought homes, motorcycles, and handguns in the victim’s name; and filed for bankruptcy.
In response to this case and others, Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998, which made identity theft a federal offense. During the past decade, most states have passed legislation to impose criminal sanctions for identify theft.
What OJP Is Doing
The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) launched the Identity Theft Victim Assistance Networks Program in 2010, a national training and technical assistance program to establish collaborative regional, statewide, or community coalitions dedicated to improving the response to victims of identity theft. These coalitions will work to improve infrastructure, training, outreach tools, and direct victim assistance services. OVC also created an e-publication showcasing previous grantees’ efforts at the national, regional, state, and local levels, which offers practical guidance and tools to service providers seeking to help identity theft victims. And earlier, in 2009, OVC inaugurated an award-winning online training program, Identity Theft: Supporting Victims’ Financial and Emotional Recovery, which incorporates interactive multimedia features to enhance the learning experience. More than 4,000 professionals have accessed this curriculum to date.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) collects data on identity theft victimization through the National Crime Victimization Survey. On a regular basis, BJS produces reports on the prevalence and characteristics of households and individuals who experience identity theft.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) sponsored a 2005 Identity Theft Literature Review, which drew from scientific studies and other sources to assess what was known about identity theft and what further research was needed. The study called for additional research on prevention and a focus on reducing the harm suffered by individual victims, financial institutions, and society.
The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) has focused its efforts on raising awareness and providing training for prosecutors and other law enforcement officials. Working with the National Crime Prevention Council, the Ad Council, and the National Association of Broadcasters, BJA also launched a public service announcement campaign on television to teach the public the facts about identity theft and promote measures to prevent it.
In addition to the efforts of OJP’s components listed above, the Department of Justice—through its Criminal Division, the FBI, the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, other components, and law enforcement partners—is aggressively investigating and prosecuting crimes that facilitate or constitute identity theft.
- Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force
- Victims of Identity Theft, 2008
- BJS Identity Theft Series
- Identity Theft Literature Review
- Expanding Services To Reach Victims of Identity Theft and Financial Fraud
- Preventing Identity Theft: A Guide for Consumers
- Report of the BJS/SEARCH National Focus Group on Identity Theft Victimization and Criminal Record Repository Operations
- DOJ Criminal Division, Fraud Section, Identity Theft
- National Crime Prevention Council
- National White Collar Crime Center
Assistant Attorney General
- 11.7 million persons age 16 or older in the United States were victims of identity theft during a 2-year period ending in 2008.*
- The unauthorized use or attempted use of an existing credit card was the most prevalent type of identity theft in 2008 (accounting for 53 percent of all victims).
- The total financial cost of identity theft was nearly $17.3 billion over a 2-year period.
- 23 percent of identity theft victims age 16 or older suffered a personal out-of-pocket loss of $1 or more.
- From the day they discovered the crime, 20 percent of identity theft victims spent more than a month working to undo the damage it caused.
Sources: Victims of Identity Theft, 2008
* Latest available BJS statistics.
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