Home Advice & How-ToIdentity Aggravated Identity Theft: Insidious, Dangerous, but Little-Known
Home Advice & How-ToIdentity Aggravated Identity Theft: Insidious, Dangerous, but Little-Known

Aggravated Identity Theft: Insidious, Dangerous, but Little-Known

by Fred Decker

Identity theft is a chameleon-like crime; it varies in form and appearance depending on the criminals’ goals and skill sets.  The financial mess you envision when you hear the phrase “identity theft” — drained bank accounts, fraudulent purchases, maxed-out credit — is only one aspect of this crime (though a common and important one). 

Aggravated identity theft is a very different, and in many ways more difficult and dangerous, affair.  It’s less well known than the financial form of identity theft, but it’s a risk everyone should be aware of. 

What Exactly Is Aggravated Identity Theft? 

The “normal” kind of identity theft that springs to mind is mostly financial.  If you have the misfortune to fall victim to an identity thief, they may use your personal information to commit medical fraud or tax fraud; to max out your credit or drain your savings; or simply get an apartment, utilities or a new phone under false pretenses. 

Aggravated identity theft is a whole other, and potentially more dangerous, thing.  Under federal identity theft statutes, identity theft is “aggravated” when the thief uses your identity in the commission of a felony.  It’s a potentially serious problem, because if the criminal isn’t apprehended — or later jumps bail — the police will come looking for you

The sentencing guidelines are correspondingly strict.  A criminal who’s convicted on a count of aggravated identity theft will receive a mandatory two-year sentence, added to the end of any other convictions.  If the crime is terrorism-related and prosecuted as such, it can add five additional years to the original sentence.   

The Risk to Victims Can Be Substantial

Having a criminal give your name to police is never a good thing, even if it’s in a relatively minor matter like a traffic violation (in general terms, this is called criminal identity theft).  You might find yourself getting pulled over for reasons you don’t understand, or failing a criminal record check, or even losing your license. 

The ante is much higher when the crime is a felony, especially a violent one.  In one highly publicized case dating back to the turn of the century, a drug dealer under arrest impersonated a Wisconsin man.  When the dealer skipped bail, the unfortunate victim was arrested repeatedly over a period of years — sometimes in front of his children — by police, with guns drawn.  Eventually, he was forced to change his name and SSN in order to put the traumatic experience behind him. 

Ideally, you’ll have the opportunity to establish your identity and prove that you aren’t the person whom the police are looking for, but at the very least you’ll endure an intense and unpredictable interaction with your local law enforcement agency.  It’s definitely a situation most of us would rather not face. 

Coping with Aggravated Identity Theft

No form of identity theft is good news, but aggravated identity theft is — as the name makes clear — especially troublesome.  If someone uses your personal information to get a credit card, or as part of a synthetic identity that’s used to work and file taxes, this is inconvenient, but there are clear-cut steps you can take to put the incident to rest.  Just reporting the incident to the FTC and the “big three” credit-reporting agencies, and placing a fraud alert or credit freeze with them, will limit the damage in most cases. 

The problem with aggravated identity theft specifically, and criminal identity theft in general, is that — unlike with credit issues — there’s no centralized way to clear criminal activity from your name and identity.  You’ll need to invest a lot more time and effort in clearing your name, and in keeping it clear.  You may even need to establish a relationship with a criminal lawyer, to help you navigate this process. 

Your first step, as with any other form of identity theft, should be to file a report at the FTC’s IdentityTheft.gov website.  This does two things: First, you “make it official” that you’ve been victimized; and second, the site walks you through the steps you’ll need to take in order to resolve the issue. 

Getting Your Life Back after Aggravated Identity Theft

Those steps begin with reaching out to the law enforcement agency responsible for the arrest (you may need to delve into court records to do that; Spokeo subscribers can add that feature for a modest fee). 

Each case is different (so you should get advice specific for your case from an attorney), but typically you’ll need to do the following: 

  • File a report, letting the police know you’ve been impersonated.
  • Provide fingerprints, photographs and proof of identity, as required by the law enforcement agency in question. 
  • Request that your image, prints and documents be checked against those from the arrest, to demonstrate that the perpetrator was not, in fact, you. 
  • Have the records of the arrest changed from your name to the real criminal’s name (if available), or to “John Doe.”
  • Request written acknowledgment that the crime was falsely attributed to you.  These documents are typically called a “clearance letter” or a “certificate of release.” 
  • Document everybody you spoke with, and the substance of your conversation, at every step (make recordings, following your state’s two-party consent laws, or grab screenshots where appropriate).  Sometimes you’ll need to deal with multiple people, who won’t always be on the same page or remember conversations as you do.

Even after you’ve successfully earned your certificate of release, it’s important to always have the documents with you in paper or digital form.  Why?  Because you’re not finished yet.  The arrest and/or prosecution and conviction (if you’re really unlucky) will make their way into a number of law enforcement databases, and can resurface at any time. 

To do the job thoroughly (again, seek the advice of an attorney for your specific case), you may also need to take the following steps: 

  • Contact the court where the criminal was arraigned or prosecuted, establish your identity with the court and prosecutors, and ask the court for a similar certificate of clearance. 
  • Contact your state attorney general’s office, and ask if your state has an “identity theft passport” or similar tool (some do, some don’t) to help victims of identity theft reestablish their normal daily lives.   
  • Ask the law enforcement agency that made the arrest which other agencies, and which law enforcement databases, they share data with. You may need to then reach out to those agencies in order to have the false arrest expunged. 

Even then, you may not have entirely dispelled the cloud over your name.   If the criminal remains at large, they may successfully use your identity again to evade custody. 

Be diligent, be persistent, and above all make sure you’re never without those documents that prove your innocence!

Aggravated Identity Theft in State Law

So far we’ve talked only about aggravated identity theft as defined in federal law.  Many states also recognize other forms of “aggravated” identity theft, though they may or may not use that specific phrase (Oregon does, for example). 

There are many reasons identity theft may be considered aggravated (literally, “made worse”).  They include the following. 

  • Scale: The more victims, or the greater the frequency of the crime, the more serious it becomes.
  • Severity: The higher the dollar amount, the more serious the crime becomes.
  • Repetition: Repeat offenders will be treated with greater severity.
  • Abuse of trust: Arguably, this is the most reprehensible form of identity theft.  It occurs when friends, family members, caregivers or trusted professionals take advantage of that trust (and it disproportionately affects minor children, seniors and the disabled). 

Many states upgrade identity theft prosecutions and sentencing when the case is aggravated by one or more of those factors, classing it as a higher-grade felony with stiffer penalties.  In some states, the convicted criminal may have to make restitution or to cover the victim’s legal costs.  You can view a state-by-state list of identity theft statutes, and the corresponding penalties, at the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures

If you’re the victim of this form of identity theft, you won’t have to chase your case through the court system: Taking the usual steps to limit and undo the financial damage will fix up your practical affairs.  In this case, the longest-lasting impact may be the emotional sense of betrayal, rather than the crime itself.  You may or may not derive some comfort from the stiffer sentencing guidelines in these cases.