Identity theft is the crime of stealing documents or information about a person and using them to steal money from his bank accounts, fraudulently open accounts or credit cards, or take out loans in his name. Victims of identity theft face losses of money from accounts, fraudulent debt in their name and damage to their credit score. Such actions violate federal law, and many states have identity theft laws as well.
The rise and prominence of the Internet and other computer technology in the 1990s made the average person's personal information much more easily accessible, and the incidence of identity theft began to increase. Congress caught up with the times and passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act in 1998. This law created the crime of identity theft and set penalties of up to 15 years in prison and fines, as well as the forfeiture of any property obtained from the identity left.
In 2009, 11.1 million adults were victims of identity theft, with a total fraud amount of £35 billion, according to the 2010 Identity Fraud Survey Report by Javelin Strategy & Research. The goal of the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act is to catch and prosecute those who cause identity theft and deter potential identity thieves.
Identity theft crimes must be prosecuted within a certain number of years of the crime, which is known as the statute of limitations. After the statue of limitations has passed, the crime can no longer be prosecuted even if new evidence is found. The federal statute of limitations as of 2010 is five years. However, state statutes of limitation may be longer, which would allow the crime to be prosecuted under state law after five years.
States have their own identity theft laws, which means identity thieves can be investigated and prosecuted by either state or federal officials. However, investigating an identity theft case is very time- and labour-intensive. Federal agencies focus only on identity thieves who have targeted many individuals because they do not have the time to investigate cases involving only one individual. This means many identity thieves may not be prosecuted at all.
The FBI, Secret Service and U.S. Postal Inspection Service all work to uncover and investigate cases of identity theft. They cooperate with the Department of Justice to get those responsible for identity theft prosecuted under the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act or any applicable state or local laws.