Identity theft is a growing problem for authorities in California and around the country, and protecting the community is especially difficult because technology designed to make life easier is providing criminals with new ways to obtain confidential consumer information. Identity thieves use people's personal or financial data, such as their Social Security number or login details, without their knowledge or consent to commit crimes like fraud or theft. One of the chief problems faced by police officers and federal agents investigating identity theft is that victims often do not find out that their information has been used without their consent until they receive credit card bills with unusual charges.
Identity theft became a federal crime in 1998 when President Clinton signed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act into law. Congress revisited the issue in 2004 and increased the penalties for aggravated identity theft by passing the Theft Penalty Enhancement Act. The penalties for terrorism related offenses are particularly severe. Federal agencies that investigate identity theft and enforce these laws include the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Federal Trade Commission.
Identity thieves sometimes trick consumers into revealing personal information with phishing emails that appear to have been sent by banks or credit card companies. However, the most damaging identity theft cases involve security breaches of websites that store the confidential information of millions of people. Consumers who wish to avoid becoming identity theft victims are advised to check their credit reports regularly and treat emails from unknown senders with great suspicion.
The penalties for federal crimes can be harsh, but proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in identity theft cases is sometimes difficult for prosecutors. Experienced criminal defense attorneys may encourage federal prosecutors to avoid the risks of a jury trial by resolving these matters at the negotiating table.