Although the term identity theft is often applied to a wide range of crimes, including checking account fraud, counterfeiting, forgery, auto theft using false documentation, trafficking in human beings, and terrorism, most policymakers and researchers agree that identity theft includes the misuse of another individual’s personal information to commit fraud. The issue that has impeded development of a universally accepted definition centers on the concept of “personal information.”
In 1998, the U.S. Congress passed the Identity Theft Assumption and Deterrence Act (ITADA), which criminalized the act of identity theft and directed the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to collect complaints from consumers. In the decade following passage of ITADA, reports of identity theft victimizations to the FTC surged. In 2001, consumers filed 86,212 complaints. Three years later, the number reported increased nearly 250% to 214,905 complaints (FTC, 2004). Data from other government agencies and private organizations also support the claim that identity theft has risen exponentially since 1998. The Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Fraud Hotline received approximately 65,000 reports of social security number misuse in 2001, more than a fivefold increase from about 11,000 in 1998 (U.S. General Accounting Office [GAO], 2002). The Privacy and American Business (P&AB) survey reports that the incidence of identity theft almost doubled from 2001 to 2002 (P&AB, 2003). Although recent FTC data suggest that reports of identity theft were relatively stable from 2003 to 2006, it is still the most prevalent form of fraud committed in the United States (36% of the 674,354 complaints filed with the FTC in 2006). In fact, identity theft has headed the FTC’s list of top consumer complaints for the past 7 years (FTC, 2007).
In response to federal identity theft legislation and rising concern by the public, state lawmakers have increasingly turned their attention to the issue by enacting bills criminalizing the act and expanding the rights of consumers victimized by this crime. In 1998, at the time the ITADA was passed, only a few states had specific laws criminalizing identity theft (GAO, 2002). Although all 50 states and the District of Columbia currently have identity theft laws, there is significant variation in what behaviors are classified as identity theft, penalties for offenders, and assistance to victims of identity theft (Perl, 2003). Lawmakers have continued to draft identity theft legislation. At the end of 2007, more than 200 bills focusing on the issue were pending at the state level.
Identity theft has also garnered the attention of the media, whose coverage of cases has risen dramatically over the past 10 years. The media regularly report on the latest scams used by identity thieves to steal personal information, the dangers of conducting routine transactions involving personal data, and the newest products and services designed to protect consumers from becoming victims of identity theft. Although much of this attention is directed toward educating consumers and marketing products, the media regularly present identity theft as an ever-increasing, ever-threatening problem. As Morris and Longmire (2008) note, the media typically present identity theft cases alongside several overlapping themes including “scorn, shock, marvel from the use of technology, and identity theft as an unstoppable problem” (p. 2). Indeed, many have referred to identity theft as the “fastest growing crime in America” (Cole & Pontell, 2006).
This research paper provides an overview of what is known about identity theft. The research paper begins with a discussion of the ambiguity and difficulties scholars have in defining the crime. This is followed by a description of the patterns and incidences of identity theft, which includes a review of the primary sources of data on the extent and costs of this crime. The next two sections discuss what is known about those victimized by the crime and those who choose to engage in it. This is followed by a description of the most common techniques identity thieves rely on to steal sensitive information and then convert it into cash or goods. The final section elaborates on legislation directed toward identity theft prevention.