The act of obtaining someone else's name and personal data through fraud and using that name and data for economic gain is called identity theft. Identity theft is criminalized in the United States because of the possible acts the thief may commit following the stealing of name or personal data. The thief can use the name or the personal data for credit or debit card fraud, amassing huge amounts of debts under the stolen name, or committing other crimes using the stolen name. Identity theft, however, was not always a federal crime. It was not until 1998, following an infamous identity theft case, when the U.S. Congress enacted the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, which criminalized the act.
Personal data, such as Social Security number, telephone number, and bank account or credit card number, is easy to obtain even for amateur thieves, which is why consumers are vehemently warned about scams used to commit the crime. There are many ways to obtain personal data, including "shoulder surfing" when the thief observes a person when punching a credit card or telephone number or when a person listens to a conservation disclosing personal data. In addition, identity theft can also be committed by intercepting mails disclosing the personal data. There are laws requiring banks and similar institutions to provide added security to their mails, but these laws are not universal in nature and often vary from state to state, or thieves find a new way to obtain the personal data.
Cases of identity theft is increasing in the United States, especially with the advent of social media platforms where people easily and unknowingly share private details about themselves. Because identify theft is a criminal crime, federal prosecutors, together with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, work hand in hand in the pursuit of identify thieves, these crimes often go undetected until after the thief has amassed substantial credit under somebody else's name. When found guilty of identity theft, the convict faces a fine, prison term of not more than 15 years and forfeiture of personal property used to commit the offense.
The penalties imposed on persons convicted of identity theft are steep. However, the damages that this crime have on the persons whose names or personal data were used are even steeper as they face huge amounts of debts that they still need to prove as not theirs and emotional stress when the bank or the credit card company downgrades their credit rating. In addition, when the identity thief commits a sensational crime and the crime gets wide media coverage, the person whose name was used to commit the crime becomes humiliated and trying to repair one's damaged status in the community is no longer easy. When scammed and robbed of one's name and data, it is best to employ the expert advice of identity theft lawyers to minimize the damage the thief may bring to one's financial and personal reputation. An expert lawyer would know where to report the crime and what laws to use to repair the damages.