Identity theft has become a major criminal attraction, costing its average victim facing more than $90,000 in fraudulent charges. As those numbers continue to climb, the federal government is taking a hard line approach to stop it.


In today’s post, we answer five common questions about how serious federal identity theft charges can be.


If you are currently charged with federal-level identity theft and need additional information, reach out to an experienced federal identity theft defense attorney for advice.


How Is Identity Theft Defined?


Identity theft (or identity fraud) refers to wrongfully obtaining and using someone’s personal information in a way that can be interpreted as deceptive or involves fraudulent activity.


Typically, the offender is acting for economic gain, and the theft often occurs without the victim realizing it. The victim usually doesn’t become aware of the theft until unknown charges surface on credit card statements or when someone’s tries to open new accounts in their name.


Federal Identity Theft is officially defined as “knowingly transferring or using, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of federal law, or…a felony under any applicable state or local law.”


What Else Does Federal Law Say?


Since the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act was passed in 1998, the U.S. government has considered identity theft a federal crime. It strengthened the governing of identity theft crimes by:


  • Shifting focus from financial institutions to affected individuals,
  • Establishing a central point-of-contact for reporting suspected crimes, and
  • Increasing criminal penalties and closing legal loopholes regarding theft of personal information


Because identity theft was (and still is) one of the fastest-growing categories of theft crime across the country, Congress a few short years later passed the Theft Penalty Enhancement Act.


This piece of legislation identified new aggravating factors to crimes of identity theft, and required the imposition of increased penalties for “aggravated” identity theft.


What Charges Can You Face?


There are at least 20 recognized types of identity theft and fraud  categorized as one of seven separate offenses according to federal law. However, all of them can be classified under three primary physical actions:


  • Knowingly producing identification documents which are unlawful or false;
  • Knowingly transferring identification documents which are stolen, unlawful, or false; and
  • Knowingly possessing identification documents which are stolen, unlawful, or false, or have been unlawfully transferred


An identity theft charge may be elevated to “aggravated identity theft” when the crime occurs “during and in relation” to any of several other federal crimes.


The 60-plus qualifying offenses are generally classified in one of two ways: those predicate offenses that involve terrorism and those that don’t.


What Penalties Do These Crimes Carry?


When convicted of a federal-level identity theft crime, a single sentence can carry prison time, significant fines, or a strict probation term.


Sentencing is determined by factors like the total identities stolen or fabricated, aggregate dollar amounts involved, and whether any aggravating factors are present. Penalties can reach 15 to 20 years imprisonment and $250,000 maximum fine.


In relation to aggravating factors, courts are required to impose an additional sentence of two years for general offenses and five years for offenses related to terrorism.


The offender is also at risk of paying victim restitution.


Ultimately, the gravity of identity theft crimes sweeping the nation has drawn a number of high-profile government agencies into the investigation and prosecution of these types of cases—such as(like the FTC, FBI, Secret Service, and Postal Inspection Service.


Our recommendation?


Don’t get involved in identity theft crimes in the first place.


However, if you do get caught up facing federal-level identity theft charges, don’t panic. Find an attorney well-versed in identity theft law, and work with them to develop your very best defense.