Identity theft is a widespread problem affecting approximately 8 million people each year. A common scenario involves an offender who obtains or buys a victim’s personally identifying information from an acquaintance or employee of an agency with access to such information. The offender then uses the information to acquire or produce additional identity-related documents such as driver’s licenses and state identification cards, make checks, order new credit cards, and cash checks. The victim is likely to be between the ages of 18 and 55 with an income greater than $75,000 and does not know the offender.
Like most offenders, identity thieves are motivated by a need for money. For some identity thieves, the need for money is fueled by a desire to maintain a partying lifestyle characterized by drug use and fast living. Others use the proceeds of their crimes to support a conventional life, including paying rent, mortgages, or utilities, or buying the latest technological gadgets. Although the desire for money is a common motivation among street-level and white-collar offenders, the selection of identity theft as their crime of choice may be attributed to the ease with which they can justify their actions. Many identity thieves are able to justify their crimes by denying that they caused any “real harm” to “actual individuals.”
Most official attempts to control identity theft have been in the form of legislation. Federal and state lawmakers have approached the problem by passing legislation defining identity theft as a crime, delineating penalties for offenders, and increasing protection to consumers and victims of identity theft. In addition to legislative action, numerous nonprofit agencies, organizations, and private companies have launched campaigns to educate consumers on how to protect their personally identifying information. Although limited, the currently available data suggest that certain situational crime prevention techniques may be useful in decreasing the incidence of identity theft. Specifically, increasing the effort and risks of acquiring information and converting information to cash or goods, eliminating ways in which information is acquired and converting information to cash or goods, and advertising the potential legal consequences of identity theft may help reduce identity theft.
To understand the crime of identity theft and thus increase the likelihood that policymakers and law enforcement are effective in reducing this crime, more research needs to be done. First, a number of laws have been passed to provide help to consumers and victims of identity theft and to assist law enforcement; however, the effectiveness of these laws has not yet been assessed. Although much of this legislation is relatively new, future research should evaluate the degree to which legislation is an effective strategy in reducing identity theft. Second, there is very little research on identity thieves themselves. Researchers should consider further developing this line of inquiry by expanding the work of Copes and Vieraitis (2007) to include active offenders and offenders convicted at federal, state, and local levels.
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