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Defending Against the Growing Threat of Identity Theft

Few crimes affect as broad a scope of people as identity theft. With social networks, credit cards, personal information, and contact information so interconnected, perpetrators can trespass into a person’s life by breaking past a single password-protected account. Accordingly, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has created a special division to aggressively prosecute this serious crime. Indeed, the District Attorney’s Office has indicated that it would pursue all cases of identity theft, regardless of how minor. This category of illegal activity includes everything from simply possessing information on another’s identity without their permission to using such information to obtain a credit card or make purchases.

In California, identity theft laws are especially strict because perpetrators can be convicted of felony identity theft regardless of whether the victim suffers financial harm as a result of the identity theft. In fact, signing someone else’s name on an official document may constitute identity theft, depending on the circumstances. Often, identity thieves work as members of larger organizations, which assemble and carry on large networks of identity theft. Someone may be accused of identity theft simply by association with members of such a network. Under California Penal Code § 530.5(a) to maintain a case of identity theft, the district attorney will need to show that a defendant intentionally obtained “personal identifying information” without the consent of the person, to use “for any unlawful purpose.” Defendants may be able to avoid prosecution for identity theft if they can present evidence to show that they obtained the identifying information with the person’s consent.

The most common identity theft cases include illegal credit cards, fake identification cards, stolen social security numbers, purchases with stolen credit cards, and skimming. Skimming involves installing a skimmer to illegal obtain identification and credit card information from card machines in retail stores and gas stations. Identity theft also involves cyber crimes such as phishing or spoofing.

The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) provides a general guide for consumers and business owners to help victims of identity theft take immediate action to prevent excessive harm to their reputation and credit. This guide also provides suggestions to help protect against potential identity theft. For example, the FTC suggests that consumers take steps to ensure that personal records are safely locked away. Additionally, the FTC warns consumers to keep passwords private to help protect online security.

The federal government is also taking steps to protect consumers against identity theft. In 1998, Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, which established identity theft as an offense. Under 18 U.S.C. § 1028, a defendant guilty of identity theft may serve up to fifteen years in prison, pay a fine, and lose any property gained by virtue of the identity theft.

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