Until recent years, identity theft punishment was often so light as to not effectively deter people from committing the crime. Luckily, President George W. Bush signed the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act into law in July of 2004. This resulted in both harsher and more standardized penalties. While there are still differences in punishment by state for petty crimes, such as stealing a couple hundred dollars by using someone else's ATM card and PIN, more severe cases have strict rules for enforcement.
Aggravated Identity Theft
Aggravated identity theft is defined as assuming someone else's identity in order to facilitate committing another crime. For example, a thief may use another person's bank account to launder money. People that are caught and convicted of this type of theft are subject to a two-year prison term at minimum on top of the punishment for the secondary crime. This also applies when the thief commits mail fraud in order to steal a person's identity. For example, thieves often dig through people's mailboxes and take out bank statements or credit card bills.
Identity Theft and Terrorism
Another identity theft crime that carries a strict penalty is one that is associated in any way with terrorism, whether it be giving fake passports or other identification to people committing terrorist acts or using someone else's driver's license to reserve a getaway car after planting a bomb. The minimum penalty for just the identity theft aspect of this crime is five years in prison, which the person must serve on top of the two year sentence for aggravated identity theft. There is also a clause which prohibits the person from being out on probation for those two years.
The Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act spells out several additional identity theft punishment provisions. They are as follows:
- The maximum prison sentence for identity theft without the aggravated clause is increased from three years to five.
- Identity theft related to terrorism includes both domestic and international terrorism.
- Thieves that have others' personal information and planning to commit a future crime using the information can be charged just for having the intent, whether or not they actually commit the crime.
Identity Theft Punishment By State
Although the federal government has worked hard to streamline the way it prosecutes identity thieves, the states have yet to climb completely on board. Some states classify all identity theft crimes as felonies, with different classes depending on the severity. Other states, such as Illinois and Idaho, consider some identity theft crimes to be misdemeanors. Penalties, such as fines and prison time, vary greatly by state and that is not likely to change any time soon. The same individual can be tried for the same crime in both state and federal court, since the charges will be different. Thus, he or she can be penalized twice, as well as have to repay the victim if he or she wins the civil trial. (In most cases, if an identity theft steals money from an individual, that person can file a civil lawsuit to have the money returned.)
Stricter penalties are often not enough to deter an identity thief, if he or she really want that personal information. Unfortunately, this is the case quite a lot, as there are millions of victims of identity theft each year. It is important to make sure identity thieves get their due. Report every instance, even if it's as minor as the theft of a credit card with a $200 limit. Since most cases of identity theft are not isolated instances, a small crime can often be just what the police need to reel in a pretty big fish.