How am I protected from identity theft?

Identity theft occurs when a criminal uses personal information to steal someone's identity. Identity theft can occur in a variety of different ways, including misuse of a Social Security number, counterfeit credit cards in your name, and mail fraud. Until relatively recently, identity theft fell under the umbrella of the charges of theft, larceny, or conversion. Identify theft, however, is one area of the law where legislatures are rapidly catching up with the technology.

The Internet has made identity theft an increasing problem as wireless Internet connections can provide sophisticated "hackers" with access to your computer and phone, both of which may contain personal and financial information. States and the federal government are making huge strides in combating the problem by enacting and amending various stat­utes, including:

Fair Credit Reporting Act
The Fair Credit Reporting Act establishes procedures for correcting mistakes on your credit record and requires that your record only be provided for legitimate business needs.

Fair Credit Billing Act
The Fair Credit Billing Act establishes procedures for resolving billing errors on your credit card accounts. It also limits a consumer's liability for fraudulent credit card charges.

Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits debt collectors from using unfair or deceptive practices to collect overdue bills that your creditor has forwarded for collection.

Electronic Fund Transfer Act
The Electronic Fund Transfer Act provides consumer protection for all transactions using a debit card or electronic means to debit or credit an account. It also limits a consumer's liability for unauthorized electronic fund transfers.

Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act
Enacted by Congress in October 1998 (and codified, in part, at 18 U.S.C. §1028), the Identify Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act makes identity theft a federal crime.

Under federal criminal law, identity theft takes place when someone "knowingly transfers, possesses, or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, or in connection with, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of federal law or that constitutes a felony under any applicable state or local law." Under this definition, a name, Social Security number, or credit card are all considered a "means of identification."

Violations of the ITADA are investigated by federal law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Secret Service, the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the Social Security Administration's Office of the Inspector General. Federal identity theft cases are prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice.

In 2004, Congress passed the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act. This act established a mandatory two-year minimum sen­tence to be served in addition to the sentence that a person may have been already sentenced to for aggravated identity theft.

Many states have also enacted statutes which not only require credit agencies to block inaccurate information resulting from identity theft, but specifically create a separate crime for iden­tity theft and require government agencies to assist the victim with repairing his/her credit report. Many states also permit individuals to place a credit freeze or fraud alert on their credit report while the identity theft is being resolved.

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