What Is the Punishment for Identity Theft?

It’s a sickening feeling.  Discovering that your personal details have been stolen and used for fraud leaves a victim feeling exposed and violated.  Sadly, identity theft is all too common.  More than 15 million Americans a year fall victim, although the number who actually report the crime to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is much less, at just over 1 million in 2023.  Rebuilding your credit score, finances and personal sense of security after identity theft takes time, but knowing that the perpetrator has been caught and punished helps with closure.  Here’s the punishment for identity theft and how you can get justice if you’re affected. 

What Are the Most Common Types of Identity Theft?

Identity theft can be targeted and personal, such as someone familiar to you taking advantage of the information you share freely to gain access to your credit card, bank or social security details, for example.  That person could be an opportunist friend or family member or a professional romance scammer

Alternatively, the identity thief could be a stranger in a foreign land working for a scam team looking to cause you to divulge sensitive information that they can use to either gain direct access to your existing financial accounts or to open new credit lines in your name.  Increasingly, scammers are targeting the older population, who are less likely to stay up to date with security, and those who are most active on social media, many of whom unwittingly share tempting information for fraudsters.

What Information Do You Need To Catch a Thief?

If any statistic should alert you to the dangers of identity theft, it’s that 85% of victims don’t actually realize they’ve been scammed for up to a year.  That’s why it’s important to be on your guard and proactive, and to check for identity theft regularly:

  • Check your credit reports for entries you don’t recognize.
  • Check your bank statements for unauthorized payments.
  • Be suspicious if any bills stop arriving at the regular time.
  • Use a credit monitoring service to raise the alarm at suspicious activity.

The FTC has a full list of measures you should take, and it’s to them you should make a report as soon as you suspect someone has stolen your identity.  You should also file a report with your local police department, place a fraud alert on your credit report, and contact any of the companies named in your statements.  Note that the person does not have to commit fraud to break the law.  They only need to steal your identity with the intent of committing fraud.  Either way, you will have difficulty getting your money back until you have filed a police report. 

Sometimes you may personally know the identity thief.  It could be a co-worker or family member, and there may be issues of gambling, debt or drug addiction involved as a motive.  However tempting it might be to “keep it in the family” and pay the debt, this can seriously impact your credit score and the debt will stay on your credit report for seven years. 

What Tools Does Law Enforcement Have?

A professional fraudster can steal thousands of identities in a single attack.  Criminals know that the police do not have the time or resources to follow up on every incident, particularly when the fraudster is outside U.S. jurisdiction.  That’s why most identity thieves are never caught, especially when they operate on the dark web. 

If you’re a victim, you may have to do some of the detective work yourself, either by hiring a private investigator or lawyer, or using a company that specializes in documenting digital access.  Once you have a name or physical address, the police can move in and make an arrest. 

What Happens When the Police Find Them?

Once you have reported identity theft to the police, you have several important rights to make use of as part of your recovery plan:

  • Place a one-year fraud alert on your credit report.
  • Get free copies of your credit report.
  • Get fraudulent information removed from your report.
  • Get copies of documents relating to fraud.
  • Stop debt collectors contacting you.

It may take months for the case to come to court, so don’t wait for the wheels of the legal system to turn to start your own journey back to normality. 

What Are the Potential Punishments?

The closest we come to a single “identity theft” law is the 1998 Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act.  This key piece of legislation establishes that knowing or transferring someone’s identity without authority constitutes a violation of federal law and a felony under state law.  Identity theft is a serious crime that is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.  Each state has its own sentencing guidelines, and some go so far as financial restitution or forfeiture.  Sentences go even higher (up to 30 years) where prosecutors bundle identity theft with mail fraud, wire fraud, computer fraud or credit card fraud. 

Ultimately, the sentencing guidelines factor in the number of victims, the number of falsified documents, the scale of inconvenience and the overall financial loss.  Whatever the scale, identity theft often feels devastating to the victim.  Securing your identity in advance is the strongest defense.  Use Spokeo’s suite of powerful tools to check what personally identifiable information about you is available online.  A quick reverse lookup using an email address, name, phone number or address can confirm if someone is who they say they are and give you insight into the person. 


Fortunly — 20 Worrying Identity Theft Statistics for 2022

AARP — Identity Theft Cases Doubled From 2019 to 2020, FTC Says

Department of Justice — Identity Theft

FTC — Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act

FTC – CSN Annual Data Book 2023

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