Identity theft involves obtaining another person's personal identifying information, such as their Social Security number or personal identification numbers, in order to gain some type of benefit. In most cases, the information is used to obtain access to money by the person who commits it. Often, this crime occurs over the Internet, using fraudulent phishing emails and hacking in order to access data.
In some cases, financial safeguards of banks and other institutions will be breached, allowing identity thieves to obtain information about thousands of potential victims. Often, victims of identity theft are unaware that a crime has been committed until they try to obtain credit or notice odd charges on their credit card statements.
Identity theft was made into a federal offense following an infamous case in which an identity thief used another person's information to obtain a home loan, ran up in excess of $100,000 in credit card debt and purchased homes, cars and guns, all while using the victim's information. The person who did so called the victim and mocked them about his actions. While the thief did receive a short sentence for procurement of a firearm after being convicted of a felony, he did not pay restitution as the offense had not been defined as a crime at the time.
Identity theft is a serious crime, and one that can expose a person who is charged with it to long prison sentences. Internet crimes charges do not mean the person actually committed the offenses. People who are charged may want to seek help from a criminal defense attorney in order to mount a defense to the allegations. The attorney might be able to review how the evidence was obtained in order to spot problems in the government's case.