Now, to the meat of the post. What is identity theft? Is it forging a check in someone else's name? Is it stealing someone's credit card and using it? Is it just pretending to be someone else?
Identity theft crimes fall into the category of white collar crimes. These are crimes that are financially motivated and generally non-violent. We usually think of an employee embezzling funds from a company when we think of white collar crimes. Today most of these crimes are identity theft. It's on the rise and more and more people will be victims in their lifetime. Just like me. It leads to lost money, lost time spent dealing with the problem, and possibly ruining your credit. In 2008, an estimated 11.7 million people were victims according to the Department of Justice.
Article 190 of the New York State Penal Law contains many of the fraud crimes related to identity theft. The crimes range from issuing a bad check (writing a check the issuer knows will bounce) to usury (outrageous loan practices) to possessing a skimmer (a device used to obtain another's credit card information without their knowledge or consent). It also defines identity theft.
Identity theft is when a person "knowingly and with intent to defraud assumes the identity of another person by presenting himself or herself as that other person, or by acting as that other person or by using personal identifying information of that other person, and thereby: (1) obtains goods, money, property or services or uses credit in the names of such other persons or causes financial loss to such person or another..." P.L. Section 190.78. The punishment ranges from a misdemeanor through a "D" Felony, depending on how much money was involved and whether the person has a prior conviction for a similar crime.
Seems simple. Someone pretends to be me and uses my info to gain a benefit for themselves. But how do we prove it? Imagine this recent scenario. A mother is on her deathbed. She has three children. One of the children lived with the mother in her years of decline and was allowed to use her mother's credit card in the past to help her obtain groceries and other products. But now the mother is incapacitated with a disease that affects her physicaly and mentally. The day before the mother dies, the adult child goes to a store and charges $20,000 worth of credit. Now this has to be paid from her estate and understandably it seems wrong. But how can we ever prove she did not have permission to use the card from the mother when the mother had capacity?
What about what happened to me? Some person in another state gets my debit card info and uses it at a hotel. We can get the surveillance videos from the hotel and the signature card. Then we find the person and interview. Get a search warrant for the home and computer. If the evidence is there, we can arrest and prosecute.
But what if that person had used my information at Amazon.com? We can find the IP address that made the purchase, but we can never say with certainty who made the actual purchase. We can never say who the person was sitting at the computer that day using the card. Anyone in the house could have used the computer.
The prosecution of these cases is difficult. We can only make arrests on cases in which there is probable cause to believe the defendant committed the offense. To do that we need evidence. As we know from every major scandal, stolen money is an emotionally driven crime. People want someone held accountable. They don't want to hear that we don't have enough evidence. Even if we all agree who did it, that doesn't mean we can charge him without admissible evidence. Like any case, we must balance the victim's wishes with the evidence. Embezzlement crimes are simpler. There is always a paper trail of missing or stolen money that will lead to the person who stole it.
So to the person in Michigan who spent two days being me, the investigation is underway. The bad thing about the internet for prosecutors is that it is difficult to know who was at the keyboard at a given time. The good thing? Someone always leave a trail. Did you?