The short answer is that identity theft is a crime. Identity theft and identity fraud are terms used to refer to all types of crime in which someone wrongfully obtains and uses another person’s personal data in some way that involves fraud or deception, typically for economic gain. These Web pages are intended to explain why you need to take precautions to protect yourself from identity theft. Unlike your fingerprints, which are unique to you and cannot be given to someone else for their use, your personal data especially your Social Security number, your bank account or credit card number, your telephone calling card number, and other valuable identifying data can be used, if they fall into the wrong hands, to personally profit at your expense. In the United States and Canada, for example, many people have reported that unauthorized persons have taken funds out of their bank or financial accounts, or, in the worst cases, taken over their identities altogether, running up vast debts and committing crimes while using the victims’s names. In many cases, a victim’s losses may include not only out-of-pocket financial losses, but substantial additional financial costs associated with trying to restore his reputation in the community and correcting erroneous information for which the criminal is responsible.
In one notorious case of identity theft, the criminal, a convicted felon, not only incurred more than $100,000 of credit card debt, obtained a federal home loan, and bought homes, motorcycles, and handguns in the victim’s name, but called his victim to taunt him — saying that he could continue to pose as the victim for as long as he wanted because identity theft was not a federal crime at that time — before filing for bankruptcy, also in the victim’s name. While the victim and his wife spent more than four years and more than $15,000 of their own money to restore their credit and reputation, the criminal served a brief sentence for making a false statement to procure a firearm, but made no restitution to his victim for any of the harm he had caused. This case, and others like it, prompted Congress in 1998 to create a new federal offense of identity theft.