What is Identity Theft?
"But he that filches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him/And makes me poor indeed." - Shakespeare, Othello, act iii. Sc. 3.
Identity theft is the crime of stealing an individual's identity. Personal information such as one's social security number, credit card number, and bank account numbers are the most likely to be compromised during identity theft. If this information falls into the wrong hands, all of the victim's assets can be accessed. The severity of identity theft varies greatly from one extreme to another. Often, it ends with the criminal stealing money. In rarer cases, a victim's entire identity is stolen and used to incur huge amounts of debt and commit crimes. If the victim's credit report is affected, it may be difficult to secure a loan or buy a house in the future. There have even been cases when a victim of identity theft has been imprisoned due to the criminal's actions. The victim is left feeling hopeless since it is difficult to prove that he/she is a victim of identity theft. To make matters worse, the costs involved with rebuilding a reputation are often higher than the amount of money stolen.
The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 defines an identity thief as anyone who "knowingly transfers or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of the Federal law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable State or local law." 
Who are the Victims of Identity Theft?
There is a common misconception that certain people will be targets of identity theft, while others will not be targeted. This is not at all the case. From a newborn child to a corpse, anyone can be victimized by this far reaching crime.
Students are often convinced that they have immunity from identity theft because they do not have a lot of money or assets. However, students tend to be open with their information and share it with others via the internet on social networking sites. In addition, a recent survey by the Department of Education has shown that students are indeed more likely than other groups to be victimized by identity theft. One of the major factors contributing to identity theft among students is that they do not destroy and discard their credit card applications properly. 
How and why do Criminals Commit Identity Theft?
There is a plethora of methods that identity thieves may use that contribute to the rapid increase of the identity theft crime rate. All of the following are viable options for identity thieves:
- Going through the trash looking for sensitive documents
- Stealing snail mail, especially letters from banks and credit card companies
- Stealing wallets/purses containing personal information
- Searching for the target's name on the internet
- Sending spam emails asking for personal information such as credit card number
- Using false pretenses to obtain information from telephone companies, banks, etc
After accessing the information, identity thieves can commit:
- Credit card fraud
- Phone or utilities fraud
- Bank fraud
- Driver's License fraud
How to Avoid Becoming a Victim of Identity Theft
The internet boom and the frequency of identity theft went hand in hand. Identity theft is a relatively new crime and some people are not aware of its existence. Awareness is key to prevent identity theft, since it will cause one to think twice before disclosing personal information. Spreading awareness to friends and family will also play a large part in reducing the occurrence of identity theft.
In addition, there are specific steps every individual should take to protect their identity:
- Do not carry your social security number, pin codes, or account access on you
- Shred all sensitive documents
- Report stolen credit cards and checks immediately
- Use a firewall and anti-phishing program on your computer
- Do not download files sent by an unknown source
What Steps Must be Taken by Victims of Identity Theft?
Victims should act as soon as possible to minimize damage. First, all credit card and bank accounts should be frozen. Next, it is most important to report it to the Federal Trade Commission who will relay the information to the proper authorities. Essentially, all companies/parties who have your personal data should be alerted.
- Identity Theft and Identity Fraud. Retrieved August 2, 2008, from United States Department of Justice Web site: http://www.usdoj.gov/criminal/fraud/websites/idtheft.html#whatcommonways
- Identity Theft. Retrieved August 2, 2008, from US Department of Education Web site: http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/misused/idtheft.html
- How Identity Theft Happens. Retrieved August 2, 2008, from US Department of Education Web site: http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/misused/how.html
- About Identity Theft. Retrieved August 2, 2008, from Fighting Back Against Identity Theft - Federal Trade Comission Web site: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/consumers/about-identity-theft.html#Whatdothievesdowithastolenidentity
- Reduce Your Risk. Retrieved August 2, 2008, from US Department of Education Web site: http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/misused/reduce.html