identity theft | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

In the criminal justice context, identity theft refers to the illegal and fraudulent use of someone else’s personal information without their consent to commit financial fraud or other crimes.

Identity theft is a crime where a person illegally uses another individual’s personal data, generally to gain financial benefits. This act is carried out without the consent of the individual whose data is being misused.

How Does Identity Theft Occur?

Identity thieves use various methods to steal personal information. They might physically steal items like credit cards, passports, or mail. They may also use deceit or fraud, tricking individuals into revealing their details. Cybercrime, including hacking and phishing, is a common method.

The stolen information can include names, social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, bank accounts, or credit card details. The thief can then use these details for many dishonest purposes.


The consequences of identity theft are vast and damaging. Financially, victims may lose money from their accounts, face credit card debt, or even find fraudulent loans taken out in their names. This can lead to a damaged credit score, making it harder for victims to secure loans or mortgages in the future.

On a personal level, victims may experience emotional distress, fear, and a sense of violation. Rebuilding their financial reputation can be a long, difficult process.

The Criminal Law

Identity theft is widely recognized as a serious crime in the United States and many other jurisdictions worldwide, carrying severe penalties for those convicted. The Model Penal Code (MPC), a guideline developed by the American Law Institute to stimulate and assist U.S. state governments in standardizing their penal statutes, does not explicitly refer to “identity theft.” However, it encompasses identity theft under various offenses, such as fraud, forgery, and unauthorized use of personal identifying information.


Under the Model Penal Code, fraud is a significant aspect related to identity theft. As per Section 223.3 of the MPC, an individual commits fraud if they purposely obtain property of another by deception. This includes fraudulent transactions made using someone else’s identity.


Forgery, according to Section 224.1 of the MPC, involves altering or creating written instruments (like credit card information or checks) without authorization or presenting such an instrument as genuine. Hence, forging another person’s personal data for fraudulent purposes, like identity theft, would constitute a crime.

Unauthorized Use of Personal Identifying Information

Although not directly referred to in the MPC, many states adopt additional statutes addressing identity theft. These statutes consider the unauthorized use of personal identifying information as a criminal act. Such laws often define identity theft as the unauthorized use of another’s personal information to commit any unlawful activity.

Penalties for Identity Theft

Penalties for identity theft vary based on the nature of the offense and its severity. They can range from fines to imprisonment or both. For instance, under the MPC, forgery can be classified as a felony of the third degree. This could translate to a sentence of up to seven years, depending on the jurisdiction.

In conclusion, while the Model Penal Code does not address identity theft explicitly, it incorporates it under various crimes like fraud and forgery. Moreover, many states have expanded upon the MPC to include explicit laws. These criminal laws play a crucial role in deterring identity theft and punishing those who engage in this harmful activity.

Investigating Identity Theft

To start the investigation, law enforcement agencies collect evidence. They might track down how and when the stolen identity was used. Agencies also look for digital footprints if cybercrime is involved. They may even recover stolen physical items like mail or credit cards.

Interviewing witnesses is another crucial part of the investigation. Witnesses might include individuals who saw the theft occur or those who received suspicious communications from the thief.

Preventing Identity Theft

As identity theft can cause severe damage, prevention is vital. Individuals can safeguard their information by being cautious online, shredding important documents, and regularly checking financial statements. In case of suspicious activities, they should immediately contact the appropriate authorities.

In the modern age, this crime is a growing concern. The ease of accessing personal information online has made it a prevalent issue. The criminal justice system continues to evolve and adapt to counter this threat effectively.

To sum it up, identity theft involves the illegal use of another’s personal information for deceitful gain. It’s a severe crime with serious financial and personal consequences for the victims. Law enforcement takes a series of steps to investigate and prosecute these offenses, reinforcing the seriousness of this crime. It’s crucial for individuals to protect their personal information and to stay vigilant to prevent falling victim.

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Last Modified: 05/22/2023

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