Understanding the Charges for Identity Theft

By Sheridan Tano , last updated November 17, 2011

If you've been arrested for committing identity theft, it's important to understand the charges. Identity theft, as the term is generally used, involves stealing someone's personal information in order to commit fraud. According to U.S. federal law, however, identity theft is a separate crime from fraud, so you may be facing more charges than you think.

Identity Theft Law

Before 1998, the act of stealing someone else’s personal information was not in itself a federal crime. If someone stole your social security number and opened credit cards in your name, for example, you were not considered a victim, despite the problems the thief caused for you and your credit history. Rather, the crime was stealing from the credit card companies, and only the credit card companies were considered victims.

This changed with the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998. This act made identity theft itself--the act of stealing someone’s personal information with the intent to use it fraudulently--a separate crime from identity fraud, or actually using that personal information fraudulently.

Under the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, identity theft is a federal crime with a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. You may also be required to hand over property you used to commit the crime, such as credit card skimmers you used to steal credit card numbers, and provide restitution to the victims whose identities you stole.

Identity Theft and Fraud Charges

The point of making identity theft a separate charge was to increase the amount of charges, and therefore the potential punishment. If you are charged with identity theft and have used the personal information you stole fraudulently, you can be charged with the specific types of fraud you have committed in addition to the more general crimes of identity theft and identity fraud.

For example, if you used stolen personal information to open credit cards or make credit card purchases, you can face federal charges of credit card fraud. Depending on what else your crime involved, you could face federal charges of computer fraud, wire fraud, or mail fraud, just to name a few. These are felonies with stiff penalties, which could add 30 years in prison and additional fines onto your identity theft sentence.

Individual states also have their own criminal statutes on fraud, and some have enacted laws that make identity theft itself a state crime as well as a federal crime. This means that you can face specific fraud charges within the state. For example, one identity thief in Kansas who used false identities to change the records of used cars was charged with odometer fraud by the state of Kansas, as well as mail fraud and identity theft.

Legal Defense

Because the charges you can face for identity theft are complex, and may involve state and federal law, you should enlist the help of a lawyer to understand your specific identity theft charges. If you cannot afford a lawyer, you have the right to representation by a court-appointed attorney.

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