Identity Theft Research Paper

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Each year millions of people worldwide have their identities stolen or misused. As a result of these illegal actions, businesses and consumers lose an estimated $16 billion to $50 billion per year. Information available from public and private agencies that collect data on identity theft suggests that the crime is becoming more common and more costly. Indeed, many have referred to identity theft as the “fastest-growing crime in America.” Not surprisingly, citizens worldwide have become concerned about falling victim to identity theft and fraud. These fears have led to a watershed of protective legislation and have stimulated private investors to develop monitoring and preventative products for identity protection. Consumers spend billions of dollars a year on credit monitoring, fraud alerts, and information monitoring to protect their personal information from theft and fraud. In fact, credit monitoring services alone are approaching a billion dollars a year in sales (Lieber 2009) with Experian leading the market with nine million consumers paying $650–700 million annually. In addition, sales of personal paper shredders, the fastest-growing segment of the total office products market, have grown by double-digit revenues for the past few years (Fetterman 2009).

Likely due to the increased prevalence of the crime, identity theft has garnered the attention of the media whose coverage of cases has risen dramatically since 2000. Media regularly report on the latest scams used by identity thieves to steal personal information, the dangers of conducting routine transactions involving personal data, and the newest products and services designed to protect consumers from becoming victims of identity theft. Although much of this attention is directed toward educating consumers and marketing products, the media regularly present identity theft as an ever-increasing, ever-threatening problem. Despite rising media attention on identity theft over the past several years, academic research on the crime is limited. This research paper provides an overview of what is known about identity theft. Specifically, it discusses the nature of identity theft, characteristics of offenders and victims, techniques of enacting the crime, and what can be done about this seemingly “unstoppable problem.”

Definition Of Identity Theft

The Identity Theft Assumption and Deterrence Act (ITADA), passed in 1998, states that identity theft occurs when a person “knowingly transfers, possesses or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, or in connection with, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of Federal law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable State or local law.” The term “means of identification” is defined as “any name or number that may be used, alone or in conjunction with any other information, to identify a specific individual.” Yet, despite the federal statute, “there is no one universally accepted definition of [it] as the term describes a variety of illegal acts involving theft or misuse of personal information” (Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS] 2006: 2). In fact, the term “identity theft” has been used to describe activities associated with a variety of offenses including checking account fraud, counterfeiting, forgery, auto theft using false documentation, trafficking in human beings, and terrorism.

One issue that has impeded development of a universally accepted definition of identity theft centers on the concept of “personal information.” For example, if an offender steals a credit card, makes a purchase, and then discards the card, has the victim’s identity been stolen? Does the use of a financial account identifier constitute identity theft? Or does identity theft only occur when an offender uses personally identifying data? An offender can use a credit card number (financial account identifier) to make unauthorized purchases or use a social security number (personally identifying data) to open a new credit card account and make purchases. Furthermore, some argue that since the crime of identity theft involves two separate components, theft and fraud, they should be labeled accordingly. In this case, “identity theft” occurs when an offender steals a victim’s personal identifying information, such as a social security number, birth certificate, or driver’s license. Whereas “identity fraud” occurs when an offender uses the stolen information to open credit card accounts, bank loans, or to deposit counterfeit checks and make withdrawals from the victim’s bank account (Koops and Leenes 2006). Although identity fraud cannot occur without identity theft, identity theft is not always followed by identity fraud, and the two components may be committed by separate offenders.

Patterns Of Identity Theft

Inconsistent definitions of identity theft across agencies and organizations tasked with collecting data make gauging the extent and patterning of the crime difficult. Contributing to the problem of data collection is the sheer number of federal agencies that play a role in identifying and investigating it. The manner in which an identity thief obtains and/or uses an individual’s identity usually determines which federal agency has jurisdiction in the case. Within the United States, the list of agencies with potential jurisdiction in identity theft cases includes the US Postal Inspection Service of the US Postal Service, the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General, US Securities and Exchange Commission, US Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Department of State, the US Department of Education Office of Inspector General, and the Internal Revenue Service.

Measuring the extent of identity theft is further complicated by the problem of underreporting. It is estimated that 40 % of all crime victims do not report their victimization to law enforcement, but the rate of reporting varies by type of victimization with more serious crimes showing a greater level of reporting than less serious crimes. For a variety of reasons, some “unknown” number of identity theft victims do not report their crimes to law enforcement authorities. The 2008 Consumer Sentinel Report indicated that only 35 % of victims who reported identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also reported to their local law enforcement agencies (FTC 2009). According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), only 17 % of all victims of identity theft reported their victimization to law enforcement. Of those who did not report the theft to law enforcement, almost half reported it to a credit card company or bank (BJS 2010). Identity theft victims may see no reason to report their victimization if they do not suffer much financial harm, as when a credit card company quickly dismisses the unauthorized charges made on the victim’s credit card. Other victims may be reluctant to report their victimization if they know the offender for fear of retaliation or getting the offender in trouble with law enforcement, especially if the offender is a family member of the victim. With these limitations in mind, the most reliable data on identity theft in the United States come from the FTC and more recently the NCVS.

Extent Of Identity Theft

In their report, the FTC estimated that approximately eight million people were identity theft victims in 2005 and total losses were nearly $16 billion (Synovate 2007). The number of victims estimated by the 2008 Identity Theft Supplement to the NCVS suggests 11.7 million people, or 5 % of persons age 16 or older in the United States, were victims of at least one type of identity theft in a 2-year period (2006–2008), with losses around $17.3 billion (BJS 2010). However, recent findings from the NCVS suggest identity theft has increased since the agency first collected data from 5.5 % of households in 2005 to 7 % of households in 2010 (BJS 2011). The change appears to be due to the increase in the misuse or attempted misuse of existing credit card accounts. The differences in the number of victims reported by the FTC and NCVS may be attributed to several methodological factors and do not necessarily represent an increase in victimization.

It is also difficult to ascertain the financial costs of identity theft since estimates vary across the available data, but all sources show that it is an extremely costly crime. According to estimates from the FTC, in 2006, the average amount obtained by the offender was $1,882, and the average victim loss (i.e., out-of-pocket expenses) was $371 (Synovate 2007). According to data from the NCVS survey, the estimated loss for all types of identity theft reported by victims who had lost at least 1 dollar averaged $2,400 with a median loss of $430 (BJS 2010).

The financial costs to victims vary depending on the type of identity theft. Victims who experienced misuse of personal information reported an average loss of $2,829, while theft of existing credit card accounts resulted in the lowest average losses ($1,105). Victims of new account fraud suffered the greatest financial loss with an average direct financial loss of $8,110 (BJS 2010). These figures represent losses that may or may not have been covered by a financial institution, such as a credit card company. In most cases, the victims are protected by a variety of federal and state laws that limit consumers’ liability in these situations. For example, the Truth in Lending Act limits consumer liability for unauthorized credit card charges to a maximum of $50 and the Electronic Fund Transfer Act provides limits on consumers’ liability for unauthorized electronic fund transfers (provided the consumer notifies the applicable financial institution within a specified time period). State laws typically but not always protect consumers from losses associated with checking account fraud and loan fraud. However, victims may incur expenses from time spent resolving problems created by the theft, including closing existing accounts and opening new ones, disputing charges with merchants, and monitoring their credit reports. Surveys suggest that the time victims spend resolving issues associated with identity theft has declined over recent years as the banking and credit card industries as well as federal laws have made it easier for victims to recoup their losses. Results from the NCVS show that about 42 % of victims spend 1 day or less resolving financial and credit problems associated with their victimization (BJS 2010).

Regardless of the time spent resolving problems created by the identity theft, victims may still experience a great deal of emotional distress, including feelings of anger, helplessness, and mistrust; disturbed sleeping patterns; and feelings of a lack of security (Davis and Stevenson 2004). In addition, some victims report work, school, and relationship problems as a result of their victimization (BJS 2011).

Getting a clear assessment of the actual costs incurred by other victims of identity theft such as banks, businesses, and companies is also difficult. In most cases, the victim whose information is misused is not legally responsible for the costs of the fraudulent transaction by identity thieves since typically it is the credit card company or merchants who lose money. Recent reports indicate that the costs to victims has been declining in the past few years perhaps due to greater awareness of identity theft, legislation directed toward making it easier for victims to regain their financial identity, and/or protection services for potential victims. Given that most banks and credit card issuers provide zero-liability fraud protection to customers, victims are usually not liable for the fraudulent charges. Since identity theft reports indicate the majority of identity theft is credit card fraud, the “costs” of identity theft have been shifted from the individual to the credit card companies and banks. But the extent of these costs is unknown as companies and banks may be reluctant to disclose financial losses due to identity theft and fraud. Despite the differences in the number of victims and estimated dollar loss to victims and companies, the data suggest that identity theft is a serious problem affecting a large number of people.

Although this research paper focuses on identity theft in the United States, it is a crime that is a problem worldwide. International sources of data on the crime suggest that prevalence of the crime varies considerably by country. A multinational telephone survey conducted by Unisys (2005) found that victimization rates varied across countries participating in the survey, with the lowest victimization rates reported by Germany (3 %). The highest victimization rates were reported by respondents in the United States (17 %) and the United Kingdom (11 %). France and Mexico reported victimization rates of 8 %, while Australia’s rate was 7 %.

More recent estimates from an online survey conducted by a private company in Australia in 2011 show that nearly one in six (or 16 %) of Australians have been a victim or know somebody who has been a victim of identity theft or misuse (DiMarzio Research 2011). Findings from a survey conducted in 2007 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicated that nearly half a million Australians or 3 % of persons aged 15 years or more were victimized by some form of identity fraud in the preceding 12 months. In the same year, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner undertook a national survey, which found 9 % of respondents, aged 18 or older, were victims of identity theft. A 2004 survey by a UK consumer magazine indicated one in four British adults had been victimized by identity theft or knew someone who had been victimized.

Research from government agencies also provides limited data on the costs of identity theft. The Home Office estimates there are over 100,000 victims of identity fraud in the UK at a cost of £1.2 billion per year. A report from the Dutch Parliament in 2002 claimed identity theft resulted in over 5 billion euros a year in financial damage, but prevalence rates were not reported. Estimates from Australia suggest that identity theft costs its citizens $1.1 billion in 2005 (Rollings 2008). In Canada, estimates from victim reports suggest that it costs them $16 million (Canadian) in 2006.

Identity Theft Offenders

It is difficult to paint a portrait of the “typical” identity thief based on the lack of reliable data. To date, few have sought to collect data directly from offenders (for exceptions, see Copes and Vieraitis 2012; Duffin et al. 2006; Gill 2007). Thus, what little is known about offenders comes from police reports and closed case files of various law enforcement agencies. The fact that clearance rates for identity theft are low means caution should be taken when interpreting the findings, and available evidence suggests that offenders are seldom detected and rarely apprehended. Using data from a large metropolitan police department in Florida, Allison et al. (2005) reported an average clearance rate of 11 % over a 3-year period. Similarly, law enforcement officials interviewed by Owens (2004) and Gayer (2003) estimated that only 10 % and 11 %, respectively, of identity theft cases received by their departments were solved. Several obstacles make the investigation of identity theft cases and the likelihood of arrests difficult. Specifically, identity theft cases can be highly complex, and the offender may have committed the theft in a different jurisdiction than where the victim resides, making it difficult to secure an arrest warrant. In addition, limited departmental resources may be directed toward the investigation of violent and drug-related offenses rather than identity thefts.

The results of the analyses conducted by Allison et al. (2005), Gordon et al. (2007), and Copes and Vieraitis (2012) demonstrate relative consistency among the demographic characteristics of identity thieves, with the exception of gender. Gordon et al. (2007) examined closed US Secret Service cases with an identity theft component from 2000 to 2006. They found that most offenders (42.5 %) were between the ages of 25 and 34 when the case was opened and another one-third fell within the 35–49 age group. In their study of data from a local law enforcement agency in Florida, Allison et al. (2005) found that offenders ranged in age from 28 to 49 with a mean age of 32.

Both law enforcement-based studies found similar patterns about race. Gordon et al. found that the majority of the offenders were black (54 %), with whites and Hispanics accounting for 38 % and 5 % of offenders, respectively. Allison et al. found that the distribution of offenders was 69 % black, 27 % white, and less than 1 % were Hispanic or Asian. The two studies differed in terms of the gender of offenders. Gordon et al. found that nearly two-thirds of the offenders were male, whereas Allison et al. found that 63 % of offenders were female.

Copes and Vieraitis’ (2012) sample of 59 identity thieves included 23 men and 36 women which is consistent with the findings of Allison et al.; however, this may be attributed to Copes and Vieraitis’ sampling strategy and the higher response rate from female participants. The racial makeup of their sample was 44 % white, 53 % black, and 3 % other. The makeup for the full list of located inmates from which the sample was drawn was 50 % white, 46 % black, and 4 % other. This is a higher percentage of white offenders than found by either Gordon et al. or Allison et al. Offenders in the sample ranged in age from 23 to 60 years with a mean age of 38 years. The majority of offenders were aged 25–34 (34 %) or 35–44 (32 %). Only 7 % were aged 18–24 years and 5 % were older than 55 years. The age distribution matches closely with the larger sampling pool and that found by Gordon et al. and Allison et al.

Both Copes and Vieraitis (2012) and Allison et al. (2005) included information on the offenders’ employment status. Most of the offenders in Copes and Vieraitis’ study had been employed at some point during their lifetimes. The diversity of jobs included day laborers, store clerks, nurses, and attorneys. At the time of their crimes, 52.5 % were employed, and a total of 35.5 % of the sample reported that their employment facilitated the identity thefts. The majority of those who used their jobs to carry out their crimes committed mortgage fraud. The results from Allison et al. indicated that 47 % were employed.

Little is known about the degree to which identity thieves specialize in their offenses. Prior arrest patterns indicated that a large portion of the offenders interviewed by Copes and Vieraitis (2012) had engaged in various types of offenses, including drug, property, and violent crimes. Yet, the majority of them claimed that they only committed identity thefts or comparable frauds (e.g., check fraud). In total, 63 % of the offenders reported prior arrests, and most were arrested for financial fraud or identity theft (44 %), but drug use/sales (19 %) and property crimes (22 %) were also relatively common. This finding is consistent with that of Gordon et al. (2007), who found that while the majority of defendants had no prior arrests, those who did have criminal histories tended to commit fraud and theft-related offenses.

Copes and Vieraitis’ (2012) interviews with identity thieves yielded information that helps provide a richer and more detailed profile of the persons who commit this crime. Through interviews with offenders, they show that identity thieves are a heterogeneous group. Their family backgrounds, educational attainments, work histories, and criminal histories run the gamut from poverty to wealth, less than a high school education to graduate degrees, and from no prior arrests to incarcerations for everything from fraud to drugs. Some are embedded in “street life” and resemble the profile of a typical street offender, while others live lives similar to those of the conventional middle-class citizen and share characteristics in common with middle-class fraudsters or white-collar offenders. Copes and Vieraitis’ data suggest that it is difficult to create a “profile” of identity thieves because the crime may be more “democratic” than most other types of crimes. That is, there is not a “typical” profile that emerges from the data because identity theft is committed by a diverse group of people from all walks of life. Despite their diversity, however, they are similar in their motivations for why they choose to commit identity theft.


The primary motivation for identity theft is the desire for money (Copes and Vieraitis 2012). Offenders estimate that they can earn several thousands of dollars in as little as 1 hour. The amount of profit gained from identity theft varies depending on the type of personal information stolen, the method an offender uses to convert a victim’s information into cash and/or goods, and the financial status of the victim. Although official statistics estimating the dollar losses of identity theft to be in the billions each year support the notion that money is a primary motivation for identity thieves, data from interviews with offenders provide more understanding about the underlying motivational factors. While it is not surprising that money is the most commonly given reason for engaging in identity theft, what offenders do with the money may not be as obvious. As previously mentioned, identity thieves are a very diverse group, and the ways in which they steal information, convert it into cash and goods, and how they spend their profits demonstrate their various lifestyles. Many live self-indulgent lifestyles that are characterized by the mentality of “desperate partying” found among persistent street thieves. For these offenders, proceeds gained through illicit activities are seldom saved for long-term plans or to pay bills. Instead, identity theft is a way of getting money to buy drugs, to party, and spend frivolously. For other offenders, their lifestyles reflect their position among the middle class. Many hailed from middle-class backgrounds and sought to support and sustain lifestyles of the affluent. They use the proceeds of identity theft to finance comfortable middle-class lives, including paying rent or mortgages, buying expensive vehicles, and splurging on the latest technological gadgets. Many face increasing debt, looming financial problems, and/or fear of losing streams of income, which led them to identity theft as a way to solve their immediate financial crises.


Virtually anyone can become a victim of identity theft, including newborns and the deceased. Establishing a pattern of those most likely to be victimized, however, is difficult with existing data. First, the pattern of victims that emerges from victimization data is affected by the operational definition of identity theft employed in the survey. For example, including existing credit card fraud as a type of identity theft increases not only the victimization rate and the costs of identity theft, but it also changes the face of victims. Specifically, women and racial minorities are at a higher risk of victimization (relative to percent of population) for existing account fraud and new credit card fraud than existing credit card fraud (Copes et al. 2010). Second, victimization patterns are also difficult to establish if cases in which the victim and offender know each other are underreported. That is, official statistics on identity theft may suffer from the same problem as other forms of crime (e.g., forcible rape) in that incidents in which the offender is a stranger to the victim are more likely reported and thus overrepresented in victimization statistics.

The results of several studies indicate that a similar percentage of men and women are victims of identity theft each year (Allison et al. 2005; Anderson 2006; BJS 2010; Kresse et al. 2007). The lowest rate of victimization is among persons age 65 or older, while the majority of victims are in the mid-twenties to mid-50s in age. Recent data from the NCVS, however, show a younger demographic – households headed by persons ages 16–24 have the greatest risk of victimization although the difference in percentages with those ages 25–34 was minimal (BJS 2011). In addition, most data suggest that those with incomes greater than $75,000 are at higher risk than households in lower income brackets. Data from the NCVS on race/ethnicity and identity theft victimization show that households headed by whites, Hispanics, and Asians experienced increased victimization from 2005 to 2010. Those reporting “two or more races,” Asians, and whites had the highest rates of victimization among race and ethnic groups (BJS 2011).

Although several studies suggest that child identity theft is relatively rare, this form of identity theft in particular may be underreported. Child identity theft occurs when an offender uses the identifying information of a person under the age of 18 for personal gain. Data from the Consumer Sentinel Network indicate that 7 % of all cases reported to the FTC involved victims who were 19 years old or younger (FTC 2009), though the study by Kresse et al. (2007) reported only half of that (3.5 %) for persons under the age of 20. The perpetrator of child identity theft is typically a family member who has easy access to personal information. According to Pontell et al. (2008), over three-quarters of those who stole the identities of victims under the age of 18 were the parents. Similarly, the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) survey data indicated that in child identity theft cases, 69 % of the offenders were one or both parents or stepparent, and 54 % of these cases began when the victim was younger than the age of 5 (ITRC 2007). However, strangers also target children because of their “clean” credit histories as well as the lengthy amount of time between the theft of the information and the discovery of the offense. Evidence suggests the cost to the child whose identity is obtained illegally does not take place until the child applies for a driver’s license, enrolls in college, or applies for a loan and/or credit. This also makes it difficult to detect and report.

Lastly, deceased persons are not immune to identity theft. Law enforcement officials have historically thought deceased victims were the targets of choice for identity thieves, as information stolen from the deceased are often used to defraud businesses or to hide from law enforcement with relative ease. Identity thieves obtain information about deceased individuals in various ways, including watching obituaries, stealing death certificates, and even getting information from websites.

Victim-Offender Relationship

Research on the relationship between the victim and offender has produced mixed results regarding whether the offenders knew victims before stealing their information. To date, the available data suggest that the majority of victims do not know their offenders. The FTC reported that 84 % of victims were either unaware of the identity of the thief or did not personally know the thief (Synovate 2007). Similarly, Javelin Research and Strategy Group (2005) found that only 14 % of all identity theft crimes were committed by someone known to the victim. When the offender is known, he or she is typically a family member, relative, friend, acquaintance, co-worker, or customer/client. Three other studies also reported that the majority (60 %) of victim-offender relationships involved individuals who did not know each other (Allison et al. 2005; Gordon et al. 2007; ITRC 2007). Although this figure is lower than the figures provided by the FTC and Javelin, overall the data suggest the majority of victims do not know the thief who stole their identity.

Techniques Of Identity Theft

To be successful at identity theft requires that the would-be offenders secure identifying information and convert it into goods or cash. Identity thieves have developed a number of techniques and strategies to do just this. Researchers and law enforcement agencies have collected information, primarily from victimization surveys and interviews with offenders, on the techniques identity thieves commonly employ. Although media reports suggest that hackers and other cyber criminals are responsible for the lion’s share of identity theft, most official reports suggest that this is not the case. For instance, a survey by the Javelin Strategy & Research suggests that only 10 % of identity theft occurred online (Javelin 2006). This finding is also supported by Gordon et al. (2007) and Copes and Vieraitis (2012).

Acquiring Identifying Information

The first step in the successful commission of identity theft is to obtain personal information on the victim, a relatively easy thing for offenders to do. Offenders obtain this information from wallets, purses, homes, cars, offices, and business or institutions that maintain customer, employee, patient, or student records. Social security numbers provide instant access to a person’s personal information and are widely used for identification and account numbers by insurance companies, universities, cable television companies, military identification, and banks. The thief may steal a wallet or purse, work at a job that affords him/her access to credit records, purchase the information from someone who does (e.g., employees who have access to credit reporting databases commonly available in auto dealerships, realtor’s offices, banks, and other businesses that approve loans), or find victims by stealing mail, sorting through the trash, or by searching the Internet. Some offenders create elaborate schemes to dupe victims into revealing their personal information both onand off-line.

The FTC (2009) data have also shed light on strategies of offending from the victim perspective. Based on data from the 43 % who knew how their information was stolen, the report suggests that offenders obtain information from people they knew personally (16 %), during a financial transaction (7 %), from a stolen wallet or purse (5 %), from a company that maintained their information (5 %), or through stolen mail (2 %). Of the 4.5 million victims responding to the NCVS, nearly 30 % believed their identity was stolen during a purchase or other transaction, 20 % believed the information was lost or stolen from a wallet or checkbook, and 14 % thought the information was stolen from personnel or other files at an office (BJS 2010).

Other techniques have been identified such as organized rings in which a person is planted as an employee in a mortgage lender’s office, doctor’s office, or human resources department to more easily access information. Similarly, these groups will simply bribe insiders such as employees of banks, car dealerships, government, and hospitals to get the identifying information. Offenders have reported buying information from other offenders such as prostitutes, burglars, drug addicts, and other street hustlers. Others have obtained credit card numbers simply by shoulder surfing, which involves peering over someone’s shoulders while they type in a credit card number.

Another method of obtaining personal identifying information is through the use of computer technology. This involves hacking into businesses that maintain information legitimately or through the use of phishing, which involves spam email campaigns that solicit information from would-be victims. Underground websites and forums operate that sell stolen information for relatively cheap prices (Holt and Lampke 2010).

Converting Information

Offenders can use information to acquire or produce additional identity-related documents, such as driver’s licenses or state identification cards, in an attempt to gain cash or other goods. Offenders apply for credit cards in the victims’ names (including major credit cards and department store credit cards), open new bank accounts and deposit counterfeit checks, withdraw money from existing bank accounts, apply for loans, open utility or phone accounts, and apply for public assistance programs.

According to the FTC, the most common type of identity theft in 2006 was credit card fraud (25 %) followed by “other” identity theft (24 %), phone or utilities fraud (16 %), bank fraud (16 %), employment-related fraud (14 %), government documents or benefits fraud (10 %), and loan fraud (5 %) (Synovate 2007). Although not directly comparable due to differences in methodology, units of analysis, and definition of identity theft, data from the NCVS indicate the most common type was unauthorized use or attempted use of existing credit card accounts, which accounted for more than half (64 %) of victimized households, followed by unauthorized use or misuse of existing accounts other than credit card accounts such as banking, savings, or PayPal (35 % of households) (BJS 2011). Data from the National Public Survey on White Collar Crime show that existing credit card fraud is more common than existing account fraud and new credit card fraud (Copes et al. 2010).

The most common strategy for converting stolen identities into cash is by applying for credit cards. Most offenders use the information to order new credit cards, but they also use the information to get the credit card agency to issue a duplicate card on an existing account. They use credit cards to buy merchandise for their own personal use, to resell the merchandise to friends and/or acquaintances, or to return the merchandise for cash. Offenders also use the checks that are routinely sent to credit card holders to deposit in the victim’s account and then withdraw cash or open new accounts. Offenders have been known to apply for store credit cards such as department stores and home improvement stores. Other common strategies for converting information into cash and/or goods include producing counterfeit checks, which offenders cash at grocery stores, use to purchase merchandise and pay bills, open new bank accounts to deposit checks or to withdraw money from an existing account, and apply for and receive loans (Copes and Vieraitis 2012).

Conclusions And Future Research

It is clear that identity theft affects a sizable portion of the population, is costly in both time and money, and is difficult to detect and prosecute. It is even difficult to define. To understand the crime of identity theft and thus increase the likelihood that policy makers and law enforcement are effective in reducing this crime, more research is needed. The first step is to address the problem of data collection. Currently, information on identity theft is collected and housed in multiple databases including both private and government agencies. Information on one incident may be reported to local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies; credit reporting agencies; credit card companies; financial institutions; telecommunication companies; and others. This makes the collection and sharing of information among agencies difficult. It also creates significant barriers to developing reliable estimates of the extent of identity theft, patterns in victimization and offending, and the true costs associated with this crime. There is also little data on the processing of identity thieves including clearance rates, conviction rates, and sentencing.

Second, 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. Information is also needed on citizens’ awareness of identity theft including their awareness of the laws designed to assist them in protecting their information as well as those designed to assist those who have been victimized. Recent research from Unisys (2005) suggests that people’s concern with, awareness of, and willingness to take steps to secure their information vary widely across countries.

Third, there is very little research on identity thieves themselves. To date, only a few scholars have examined offenders directly (Copes and Vieraitis 2012; Duffin et al. 2006). Researchers should consider further developing this line of inquiry by expanding the sample of identity thieves to include active offenders and offenders convicted at federal, state, and local levels. These efforts would also be aided by the development of a centralized database for the collection of identity theft data.

Developments in technology and the globalization of commerce also make coordination of international efforts to stop identity theft increasingly important. Lawmakers in various countries have been relatively slow to respond to the emerging threat of identity theft. According to a survey completed by the Perpetuity Group, countries such as France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany had no specific laws directly addressing identity theft and identity fraud (Owen et al. 2006). The Netherlands, for example, had over 30 different laws encompassing identity theft or fraud. In the absence of an explicit law, prosecutors had to be creative to ensure convictions. The study also found that only the United Kingdom and France had dedicated units specializing in noncash payment fraud. Most countries, however, had multiple, uncoordinated divisions each of which was partially responsible for detecting identity theft and apprehending thieves. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of State have undertaken several measures to increase awareness of and provide assistance to law enforcement agencies in an effort to organize a global strategy against identity theft. These efforts include the expansion of a “24/7 network” which communicates with agencies from approximately 50 countries to provide electronic evidence in emergency cases and the training of lawyers and law enforcement agents in other countries.


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