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Is Identity Theft a Federal Crime?

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Is Identity Theft a Federal Crime?

Identity theft, the act of stealing someone’s personal information to commit fraud or other crimes, is a federal crime in the United States. This was not always the case; the increasing prevalence of this crime in the late 20th century, spurred by the rise of the internet, led to significant legal developments at the federal level.

From a criminal defense standpoint, facing federal identity theft charges is serious. These cases carry severe penalties, including prison time. Contact a Cincinnati fraud defense lawyer for further legal assistance.

Understanding Identity Theft

Identity theft involves the unauthorized use of someone else’s personal information for financial gain or other fraudulent purposes. It can take many forms – from using someone’s credit card details to make unauthorized purchases to more complex schemes like filing fraudulent tax returns or opening new financial accounts in someone else’s name.

Understanding Identity Theft

The federal legal framework surrounding identity theft in the United States underwent significant changes with the introduction of the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act in 1998. This act was a substantial step forward in the fight against identity-related crimes, underscoring the seriousness with which the federal government began to address this growing issue.

Before the enactment of this act, the legal tools available to combat identity theft were not as comprehensive or effective. The traditional approach to dealing with such crimes often involved prosecuting the frauds that identity thieves committed using stolen identities rather than the act of stealing the identity itself. However, as the digital age dawned and the incidence of identity theft surged, it became increasingly clear that more specific and targeted legislation was necessary.

The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 responded to this need by formally defining and criminalizing the act of identity theft at the federal level. Under this act, as codified in 18 U.S.C. § 1028, it became a federal crime to knowingly and without lawful authority use another person’s identification with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of Federal law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable State or local law.

This definition was important as it recognized stealing someone’s identity as a crime in and of itself, separate and apart from any other crimes committed with the stolen identity. It provided a strong legal basis for prosecuting individuals who take another person’s personal information — such as names, social security numbers, and credit card numbers — for unlawful purposes.

The legislation also acknowledged the several methods used in identity theft, including misusing personal and financial identifying information. This broadened the scope of what the legal system considers to be identity theft, encapsulating a range of activities from traditional thefts (like stealing a wallet) to more modern methods (such as phishing schemes online).

Further strengthening the federal legal framework, the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act of 2004 built upon the foundations laid by the 1998 act. This subsequent act introduced more strict penalties for identity theft, particularly in cases deemed as aggravated identity theft. Under this enhancement, individuals found guilty of certain identity theft offenses, especially those linked to more serious crimes like terrorism or immigration violations, faced mandatory additional penalties, reflecting the gravity of such offenses.

Collectively, these legislative actions represent a comprehensive federal effort to address the multifaceted challenges posed by identity theft. The laws provide a strong framework for federal prosecutors and law enforcement agencies to combat this crime by criminalizing the act of stealing someone’s identity and setting forth clear penalties.

Prosecution of Identity Theft at the Federal Level

While many identity theft prosecutions occur under state laws, certain circumstances elevate these cases to the federal jurisdiction.

One of the primary factors that triggers federal prosecution of identity theft is the interstate nature of the offense. When an identity theft crime crosses state lines, it inherently becomes a matter of federal concern. This is particularly relevant in the digital age, where personal information can be accessed and misused across the internet, often involving perpetrators and victims in different states. The interstate element of these crimes makes it difficult for any single state to fully address the issue, necessitating federal intervention.

Substantial financial loss is another criterion that often brings identity theft cases into the federal realm. The federal government typically gets involved when the amount of money involved in the crime is significant. High-value cases of identity theft often indicate a level of sophistication and organization that goes beyond the capabilities of an individual acting alone. This can include large-scale operations where vast amounts of personal data are stolen and used for fraudulent activities, often involving complex networks and multiple perpetrators.

Another aspect that can lead to federal prosecution of identity theft is its connection to broader criminal schemes, such as terrorism or drug trafficking. In these scenarios, identity theft is not just a standalone crime but a part of a larger, more sinister criminal enterprise. For instance, criminals might use stolen identities to facilitate terrorist activities or to enable the distribution and trafficking of illegal drugs. In such cases, identity theft is intertwined with national security and public safety concerns, making it imperative for federal agencies to take charge of the investigation and prosecution.

Federal agencies like the F.B.I. and the Secret Service play large roles in these investigations. Their resources and jurisdictional reach make them particularly suited to handle identity theft cases that transcend state boundaries or are part of larger criminal activities. These agencies use advanced technological tools and investigative techniques to track down perpetrators, often working in collaboration with other federal entities, state and local law enforcement, and international agencies in cases that have a global footprint.

In addition to these factors, federal prosecution of identity theft may also hinge on the specific methods used in committing the crime or the particular types of information stolen. For example, cases involving sophisticated cybercrimes, the use of interstate wire communications, or the theft of government documents and benefits often attract federal attention.

State vs. Federal Prosecution

While federal laws provide a broad framework for addressing more serious instances of identity theft, state laws play a role in handling cases that are more localized and may not meet the threshold for federal prosecution.

At the state level, identity theft laws vary significantly from one state to another in terms of definitions, penalties, and the specific acts that are criminalized. Typically, state-level identity theft laws are designed to cover a wide range of activities involving unauthorized use of another person’s personal information for fraudulent purposes. This can include crimes like using someone else’s credit card without permission, impersonating someone to obtain services, or even stealing mail to gather personal information. The primary focus at this level is on crimes that directly affect individuals within the state’s jurisdiction to protect residents from local and more personal instances of identity theft.

State prosecutions are often more suited for cases where the crime, the victim, and the perpetrator are all located within the same state. They are essential in addressing most identity theft cases, which may not involve large-scale operations or cross state lines but still significantly impact the victims. State laws provide the flexibility and responsiveness needed to tackle these crimes effectively, allowing for quicker legal proceedings and resolutions that are more attuned to the local context.

In contrast, federal prosecution is typically reserved for more complex cases with a broader impact. As previously discussed, these include instances where the crime crosses state lines, involves large sums of money, or is part of a larger criminal scheme like terrorism or drug trafficking. Federal laws, such as the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act and the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act, provide the legal basis for prosecuting these more serious offenses. Federal prosecution brings into play the resources and experience of federal agencies and allows for a more coordinated approach in cases that involve multiple jurisdictions or sophisticated criminal networks.

The decision to prosecute at the state or federal level can also depend on the specific tactics used in the identity theft and the types of information stolen. For instance, cases involving advanced technological methods, such as hacking, phishing, or the theft of sensitive government-related information, are more likely to be prosecuted federally. This is due in part to the specialized nature of these crimes and the need for a level of experience and resources that is often more readily available at the federal level.

Penalties for Federal Identity Theft

Penalties for Federal Identity Theft

The penalties for identity theft under federal law are structured to reflect the severity and complexity of the crimes committed. In the United States, federal statutes provide for a range of penalties, with the specific sentence depending on factors such as the nature of the offense, the amount of money involved, and whether the identity theft was linked to other criminal activities.

For basic cases of identity theft, where an individual’s personal information is used unlawfully for economic gain, the maximum penalty can be up to 15 years in prison. This level of punishment is typically reserved for cases where the offender has knowingly and without authorization used someone else’s identity to commit fraud or other unlawful activities. This broad category can cover a variety of offenses, from using stolen credit card information to make unauthorized purchases to more complex schemes like applying for loans or government benefits using someone else’s identity.

However, the penalties become more severe when identity theft is involved in more serious crimes. For instance, in cases where identity theft is tied to terrorism or drug trafficking, the potential prison sentence can extend up to 30 years. This reflects the increased gravity of these offenses and their broader impact on public safety and national security. In such cases, the use of stolen identities is often part of a larger, more intricate criminal operation, and the harsher penalties serve as a significant deterrent.

One of the most serious forms of identity theft under federal law is aggravated identity theft. This category includes instances where stolen identities are used to facilitate or conceal serious crimes like domestic terrorism. Under the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act, aggravated identity theft carries mandatory additional imprisonment. This means that if an individual is convicted of aggravated identity theft, this sentence is added to the punishment for the underlying felony. The mandatory additional sentence is typically two years for general offenses and five years for terrorism-related offenses. This reflects the heightened seriousness of using identity theft as a tool to enable or hide other criminal activities, particularly those that pose a direct threat to public safety or national security.

What to Do If You’re Accused

Being accused of identity theft, particularly at the federal level, is a serious matter with potentially severe consequences. It is a situation that requires careful and immediate action.

The first and most important step for anyone accused of identity theft is to seek legal representation. Speak with a criminal defense attorney who has experience in federal criminal law. A knowledgeable lawyer can provide guidance on federal law and identity theft cases. They can help you develop a strong defense strategy.

Another important aspect is to refrain from discussing the case with anyone other than your attorney. This includes conversations with friends, family, or especially law enforcement officials without your lawyer present. Anything you say can be used against you in court, so it’s important to exercise your right to remain silent until you have legal representation.

Gathering evidence that supports your defense is another key step. This might include collecting financial documents, communications, or any other information that can help prove your innocence or mitigate the circumstances of your case.

Your attorney will guide you in identifying and compiling relevant evidence.

Furthermore, it is important to understand the potential consequences of a conviction for identity theft. Penalties can be severe, including lengthy prison sentences and substantial fines, especially in cases of aggravated identity theft or when the theft is linked to other serious crimes like terrorism or drug trafficking. Knowing these potential outcomes can help in making informed decisions throughout the legal process.

Cooperate with your attorney and be proactive in your defense. This includes attending all court hearings, following legal advice, and staying informed about the progress of your case. Your attorney may also advise you on steps you can take to mitigate the impact of the charges on your personal and professional life.

Contact a Criminal Defense Lawyer

Megan Patituce, Cincinnati Fraud Defense Lawyer
Megan Patituce, Identity Theft Lawyer

For those accused of identity theft, the stakes are high, given the federal government’s rigorous approach to these crimes. Prosecuting identity theft at the federal level can involve severe penalties, including substantial prison sentences. This underscores the importance of legal representation in these cases.

If you find yourself accused of or implicated in an identity theft case, contacting a criminal defense lawyer with experience in federal crimes becomes an immediate priority. A criminal defense lawyer can offer guidance on the legal defenses available in identity theft cases. These might include challenging the prosecution’s evidence, arguing the absence of intent to commit fraud, or negotiating plea agreements.

For anyone facing identity theft charges or for those keen on understanding their legal rights in the face of such accusations, contact a criminal defense attorney.