Identity theft can take many forms but fundamentally involves the use of your personal identifying information by another person for profit or personal gain. It may involve a person perpetrating a fraud by using your credit or debit card information without your permission, or it may occur when someone else pretends to be you, receiving goods or compensation intended for you. It can also involve someone stealing or wrongfully using login and password information to access your personal online accounts.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which monitors consumer fraud, consistently finds identity theft to be the most frequent consumer complaint. Identity theft is a crime in every state as well as under federal law. Let’s look at the protections available to consumers.
The term “identity theft,” first used in 1964, is the unlawful use or taking of personally identifiable information. To violate the law, the theft must be done with intent or knowledge and in order to obtain some financial benefit. Information commonly considered “personally identifiable” under most identity-theft statutes are the following:
Though identity theft is most commonly used to engage in financial fraud, there are a number of other forms of identity fraud or theft that are regulated by law:
In 1998, Congress passed a law known as the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act. Signed into law by President Clinton, the statute makes it a federal crime to “knowingly transfer, possess or use without lawful authority” any “means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any unlawful activity.” To be subject to federal prosecution, the unlawful activity must include one of the following:
In 2004, Congress passed the Theft Penalty Enhancement Act, tacking on additional sentences for convictions of “aggravated” identity theft. This statute adds two years of incarceration for general identity theft convictions and five years in cases where the identity theft is related to terrorist activity.
Victims of identity theft can also turn to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) in the aftermath of the wrongful use of personal identity information. The FCRA allows consumers who are victims of identity theft to compel businesses to turn over transaction records related to the identity theft. Those records must be provided within 30 days of receipt of the request. In addition, the consumer may designate a police or law enforcement officer to receive such records.
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires website operators to take certain actions to protect the identity and safety of children under the age of 13. The burdens placed on website operators under COPPA apply to websites that include content “directed to children.” The statute requires website operators to do, among other things, all of the following:
Because of the limited jurisdiction of federal identity theft statutes, most identity theft prosecutions are under state law. Though some of the details may vary, every state has some form of identity theft law. More than half of the states have passed laws allowing victims of identity theft to seek restitution, and many have established programs to help minimize the risk of repeated identity theft.
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