How are Identity Thieves Caught and Punished?

When you’ve been wronged, it’s human nature to want to see justice done. Yet because so much of identity theft happens behind the scenes and in covert ways, victims may wonder if identity thieves are ever punished for their crimes. The good news is that multiple consumer protection laws target identity thieves, and federal, state and local authorities investigate and prosecute identity theft cases.

More than 13 million people were victims of identity theft in 2013, the most recent statistics available. Identity theft occurs when someone’s personal, financial or medical information is stolen and misused. It can occur in many ways, from hackers breaking into a company’s data bases to a laptop containing proprietary information being stolen from a car, and even “dumpster diving,” during which thieves steal documents with sensitive information from the trash. Identity theft can be devastating, financially and emotionally. If thieves use stolen information to open lines of credit in your name, their actions can affect your credit report and credit score, requiring hours of your time to correct the damages.

In addition to the federal Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998, identity theft laws exist in all 50 U.S. states. You can find a state-by-state breakdown on the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Local police forces, state and federal bureaus of investigation, the Secret Service, the Federal Trade Commission, the IRS and many other government agencies are involved in combatting identity theft. In 2014, the IRS launched 1,063 identity theft-related investigations, which resulted in 748 sentencings, according to the IRS. Nearly 88 percent of those convicted got prison time; the average length of sentence was 43 months and the longest was 27 years, the IRS reported.

While authorities work to catch and prosecute those who perpetrate identity thieves, you can do your part in the fight against this fastest-growing type of crime. First, take preventive steps that can thwart identity theft, including:

  • Protect your mail. Use a locked mailbox for incoming mail, and deposit outgoing mail at the post office.
  • Shred all documents with personal information before throwing them away.
  • When using a credit card (never a debit card) online, be sure you’re dealing with a secure site.
  • Never carry your Social Security card in your wallet, and limit identification and credit cards you regularly carry to only those you actually need.
  • Monitor your credit report and all financial accounts; they’re often the first places where signs of identity theft and fraud show up.

If you detect signs of identity theft, the Federal Trade Commission recommends you immediately take these three steps:

  • Ask one of the three major credit reporting agencies to put a fraud alert on your credit file. That one will notify the other two of the alert, which requires a business to confirm your identity before opening a new credit account in your name.
  • Get a free copy of your credit report. Placing the fraud alert entitles you to a free copy of your report, which you should review carefully for any signs of fraud, such as accounts you don’t recognize.
  • File a complaint with the FTC, which will generate an Identity Theft Affidavit. Take the affidavit to your local police and file a report with them.

These steps can help you manage your recovery from identity theft, and could aid investigators in catching, prosecuting and ultimately punishing the people responsible for stealing and misusing your identity.

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This article is provided for general guidance and information. It is not intended as, nor should it be construed to be, legal, financial or other professional advice. Please consult with your attorney or financial advisor to discuss any legal or financial issues involved with credit decisions.

Published by permission from, Inc., an Experian company.   © 2014, Inc.  All rights reserved.