Identity theft involves taking and using someone else’s personal identifying information without authorization. Usually, the individual who obtained the data uses it to get some benefit or something of value for themselves.
Many people are aware that identity theft is a state offense, but they might not know that it can also be charged as a federal crime. The offense falls under federal jurisdiction when the alleged actor uses the information with the intent to violate a federal law or commit a state felony.
Federal identity theft is a felony with severe penalties. The punishments can be even harsher if the prosecutor decides to charge the alleged actor with other related crimes.
What Is Identity Theft?
In general, identity theft is when an individual steals the personal identification information of someone else.
Personal identification information includes any data unique to an individual identifying who they are, such as:
- Date of birth
- Social Security Number
- Bank account number
- Personal identification number
- Driver’s license number
The actor uses that data without the person’s permission to obtain something of value. For instance, they might open a line of credit in the other person's name and make unauthorized purchases. Or they might make a fraudulent insurance claim to receive benefits they are not entitled to.
Several methods exist for unlawfully obtaining another person’s information. These include:
- Data breaches: The person gains unauthorized access to a company’s system containing customer, employee, or patient information.
- Unsecured websites: The person installs software on an unsecured site allowing them to copy a visitor’s personal data.
- Mail theft: The person steals someone else’s mail to get sensitive information, such as bank account numbers.
- Card skimming: The person installs a device on unmonitored card readers (e.g., ATMs or gas pumps) that copies credit card information.
- Shoulder surfing: The person observes as another individual writes down or verbally gives their personal details.
What Makes Identity Theft a Federal Crime?
The federal law concerning identity theft is 18 U.S.C. 1028(a)(7).
It provides that a person commits an offense when they:
- Knowingly transfer, possess, or use
- Another individual’s means of identification
- Without authorization and
- With the intent to violate federal law or commit a state felony.
“Means of identification” is any information specific to a person.
- Social Security Numbers,
- Dates of birth,
- Driver’s license numbers
- Passport numbers,
- Taxpayer identification numbers,
- Routing numbers,
- Voice prints, and
- Retina images.
The conduct involved in identity theft usually violates other federal laws. As such, those alleged to have engaged in the act may be prosecuted under several statutes.
Possible charges that can be filed in addition to identity theft include:
- Credit card fraud: Using or making a counterfeit credit card.
- Computer fraud: Gaining unauthorized access to a computer to obtain confidential information.
- Mail and wire fraud: Using the United States Postal Service or any means of electronic communication to further a scheme to defraud.
- Financial institution fraud: Carrying out a scheme to defraud a financial institution.
How Is Federal Identity Theft Punished?
As noted earlier, federal identity theft is a felony. It is punishable by up to 15 years of imprisonment.
If the Department of Justice also pursues other charges, the alleged offender could face additional penalties if convicted of the related offense(s). The crimes listed in the previous section are also felonies carrying lengthy prison sentences.
- Credit card fraud and computer fraud are each punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
- Mail and wire fraud each carry a prison term of up to 20 years.
- Financial institution fraud is penalized by up to 30 years of imprisonment.
Discuss Your Case with Our Team
Whether charged as a state or federal crime, identity theft is serious. You can fight your charge and seek a favorable outcome in your case by enlisting the help of a criminal defense attorney.
At Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP, our team is here to deliver the aggressive representation our clients need. If you are looking for legal representation in Los Angeles, please contact us at (800) 462-7160.