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What are the Consequences of Identity Theft?

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Getting your identity and sensitive data stolen can have ruinous effects potentially for your reputation, finances, and emotional health.

With 1 out of 4 American adults experiencing identity theft, most people know someone who has personally been affected by identity theft. From account takeovers and stolen funds to social media hacks, identity theft has become a regular threat to our everyday lives. In fact, 2022 generated more than $8 billion in total fraud losses reported.

How identity theft can impact your life varies from person to person, but the effects can be serious. Whether your reputation is sullied through a social media takeover or your financial information is used to fraudulently obtain a loan, it’s a violation that can take hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to repair — but there are state and federal laws designed to protect consumers.

Laws regarding identity theft

Due to the increased odds of identity theft and its significant consequences, the United States government passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act in 1998. Under this act, it is a federal crime for a person who “knowingly transfers or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or aid or abet, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of Federal Law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable State or local law.”

Congress then passed the 2004 Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act, which increased the punishment for “aggravated” identity theft. This act requires courts to levy an additional two-year sentence for general offenses, and five years for terrorism-related offenses.

In addition to being a federal crime, state and local laws also define various penalties for identity theft. The charges often depend on the intent and severity of the damages caused. That determination comes from the investigation of agencies, which could include police, federal bureaus of investigation, the Federal Trade Commission, the IRS and more.

Penalties for identity theft

Given the serious nature of identity theft, the law imposes serious consequences for those found guilty:

  • Fines are a common punishment for identity theft and are commensurate with the charges levied (whether a misdemeanor or felony).
  • Restitution: Identity thieves can be ordered to compensate a victim for financial losses, including lost wages, legal fees and even damages from emotional distress.
  • Imprisonment: Identity thieves can be incarcerated with aggravated identity theft punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of two years.
  • Probation: In rare cases, first-time identity thieves can avoid jail time, although they’re still responsible for following court orders and paying any fines or restitution.

Identity theft protection is a strong defense

Despite the consequences faced by identity theft criminals, they are not enough to stop cybercriminals. One of the strongest defenses is to remain vigilant and following security best practices — such as securing your personal accounts, staying safe while online, ordering a credit freeze, placing a fraud alert on your credit report, or potentially investing in an identity theft protection service.