Identity theft is the fraudulent and wrongful acquisition and use of a person’s private identifying information. Some of the means used by individuals to conduct identity theft are “shoulder surfing,” “dumpster diving”, and unsolicited emails (U.S. Department of Justice, 2017). A 2017 Identity Fraud study found that $16 billion was stolen from 15.4 million U.S. consumers in 2016, compared with $15.3 billion and 13.1 million victims a year earlier. In the past six years identity thieves have stolen over $107 billion (Pascual, Marchini, & Miller, 2017). Even more, cyberattacks are growing in frequency. As compared to the 780 incidences in 2015, 2016 experienced 1,093. Of these, a data leak known as the “Panama Papers” exposed millions of documents of the Panamanian law firm, Mossack Foneska. The year before, in 2015, health insurers Premera Blue Cross and Anthem were breached, exposing the data of 11 million and 79 million consumers, respectively. Furthermore, breaches within multiple United States government entities such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Internal Revenue Service has led to the compromising of over 22 million former and current government employees.
Due to the increased popularity and perceived ease of this crime, Congress has taken action by passing two laws:
The 1998 Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, which amended Title 18, U.S. Code, Section 1028 to make it a federal crime to knowingly transfer or use, 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.
The 2004 Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act, which established penalties for “aggravated” identity theft, which is using the identity of another person to commit felony crimes, including immigration violations, theft of another’s Social Security benefits, and acts of domestic terrorism. The act required the court to sentence two additional years for a general offense and five years for a terrorism offense.
Though an individual may call the companies where they know the fraud has occurred, place a fraud alert, get their credit report, report an incident to the Federal Trade Commission, or file a report with the police department during or after the fact, steps can be taken to prevent the crime in the first place. In the real world, one can make sure to watch their wallet, be careful with debit or credit card numbers, and practice non-disclosure of PIN numbers. However, digital media is rapidly facilitating criminal fraud and thus, additional actions may be done to prevent identity fraud via the Internet. To protect oneself online, use unpredictable passwords as well as a variety of passwords for each account, shop on secure websites, possess security software such as an anti-virus or firewalls, and do not put personal information of any kind on computers in public spaces (Consumer.gov, n.d.). Furthermore, one should remember to never give out one’s social security number or driver’s license number, avoid giving account information to third parties, minimize the use of personal information on social media, only invite people that one knows to their network, and “Google” oneself regularly (Lewis, 2017).
Consumer.gov. (n.d.). Avoiding Identity Theft. Retrieved from https://www.consumer.gov/articles/1015-avoiding-identity-theft#!what-it-is
Lewis, K. (2017). How Social Media Networks Facilitate Identity Theft and Fraud. Entrepreneurs' Organization. Retrieved from https://www.eonetwork.org/octane-magazine/special-features/social-media-networks-facilitate-identity-theft-fraud
Pascual, A., Marchini, K., & Miller, S. (2017). 2017 Identity Fraud: Securing the Connected Life. Pleasanton: Javelin Strategy & Research.
U.S. Department of Justice. (2017, February 7). Identity Theft. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/criminal-fraud/identity-theft/identity-theft-and-identity-fraud