Before identity theft officially became a crime in 1999, perpetrators were instead given charges like stealing by deceit, forgery or maybe counterfeiting. There was also the occasional fraudulent use of a credit device charge.
Even though there's now the crime of identity theft, there's still some overlap with the others crimes. Identity theft covers a whole gamut of illegal activity and, according to Cape Girardeau Prosecuting Morley Swingle, "it's hard to think of another crime that has such a wide range of punishment."
If someone is caught stealing your Social Security number but does not use it, Swingle said, then he might be guilty of a class B misdemeanor punishable by six months in the county jail and/or a $500 fine.
That's the low end. At the high end of the spectrum, someone might open a credit card account in your name and run up more than $100,000 worth of charges for goods and services. That makes it a Class A felony carrying a maximum punishment of life in prison.
And there's all those other crimes in-between.
"Not a week goes by I don't file another identity theft case, " Swingle said.
Detective Brad Smith of the Cape Girardeau Police Department says he investigates between three and five a week.
The Internet has made identity theft easier for the criminals, Smith and Swingle say.
"You'd be surprised what's out there on you," Smith said. "Everyone's information is on some data base somewhere. That's something that has evolved with technology, the availability of information."
Some cases of identity theft are easily cleared, Smith said. Often it can be a clerical error; someone gets a bill for an account opened by someone of a similar name n a different city. Or, someone uses a credit card belonging to a recently--deceased relative.
"The family member goes out shopping and we start figuring out who is doing what," Smith said.
But if someone prints up some counterfeit checks on a computer using someone else's account number, or runs up purchases on anther's credit or debit card, usually the banks or credit card companies will replenish the loss, issue a new card or new checks, and the bank or the credit card companies then become the victims.
What the banks or credit card companies do about it often depends on the amount of value involved.
"Sometimes they'll just take the loss," Smith said. "If it's a huge dollar amount, they have their own investigators and will try to get it themselves."
Smith said he has worked with private investigators, as well as the FBI and he Secret Service on large identity theft cases. The federal agencies have more resources available to them to track down an identity thief, although if it involves overseas transactions it can become more difficult.
Larger cities have more identity theft reports, Smith said. Kansas City and St. Louis have task forces who do nothing else but track down identity thieves. In smaller areas, it is not so much of a problem, said Lt. David James of the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department. A smaller population is part of the reason why, but James said people are getting smarter.
"They're becoming more aware of identity theft and taking precautions," he said.
Criminals are also getting smarter and more computer literate. Swingle added that identity theft will continue to be a problem until computer technology "makes it more difficult for somebody to masquerade as someone else on a computer."
Smith advises individuals to be vigilant about protecting their identity. Shredders are inexpensive and available for home use, he said. He cautions those who buy items on line to be absolutely sure they're buying from a company that protects the credit card account numbers of its customers. Shred mail that has your Social Security or other identifying information on it, especially solicitations for credit card accounts. But most of all, check your credit history regularly.
"Don't be lazy with your information," he said. "Do credit checks on yourself. It's important to be responsible with your finances and check your credit history."