II. Identity Theft Definition
According to ITADA, it is unlawful if a person
knowingly transfers or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of Federal law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable State or local law.
Although the federal statute, passed in 1998, supplied the first legal definition of identity theft, “There is no one universally accepted definition of identity theft as the term describes a variety of illegal acts involving theft or misuse of personal information” (Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS], 2006).
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.” For example, if an offender steals a credit card, makes a purchase, and then discards the card, has the victim’s identity been stolen? Does the use of a financial account identifier or personally identifying data constitute identity theft? An offender can use a credit card number (financial account identifier) to make unauthorized purchases or use a social security number (personally identifying data) to open a new credit card account and make purchases.
The government’s first attempt to systematically collect a large, nationally representative sample of data on identity theft, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), includes three behaviors in its definition of identity theft: (1) unauthorized use or attempted use of existing credit cards, (2) unauthorized use or attempted use of other existing accounts such as checking accounts, and (3) misuse of personal information to obtain new accounts or loans or to commit other crimes (BJS, 2006). By including the unauthorized use or attempted use of existing credit cards, the NCVS considers financial account identifiers as personal identification. Other researchers, however, have employed the definition of identity theft specified by the federal statute but only include offenders who had used personally identifying data to commit their crimes. Offenses where financial account identifiers were used (e.g., credit card fraud and check fraud) were treated separately. In sum, there is no consistent definition or use of the term identity theft across agencies or organizations that collect data, which makes gauging the extent and patterning of identity theft difficult.