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Identity theft, which can be charged as a state crime or a federal crime depending on the circumstances, is an increasingly common criminal offense.  According to statistics compiled by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), identity theft prosecution recommendations nearly doubled in the short period from 2012 to 2014.  But how does an investigation begin?  When can you be charged with identity theft?  And what penalties does a defendant face if he or she is convicted or pleads guilty?

It goes without saying that identity theft involves stealing another person’s identity.  However, this offense is defined somewhat differently by federal and Pennsylvania statutes.

With regard to Pennsylvania law, the relevant statute is 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 4120, which states the following:

“A person commits the offense of identity theft… if he [or she] possesses or uses, through any means, identifying information of another person without the consent of that other person to further any unlawful purpose.”

“Identifying information” includes, but is not limited to, using another person’s:

When identity theft is charged as a federal offense, the pertinent statute is 18 U.S. Code § 1028.  (Note the title of this statute does not specify identity theft by name, but rather refers to “fraud and related activity in connection with identification documents, authentication features, and information.”)

gavel on keyboard for identity theft charges

As compared with the Pennsylvania statute, the federal statute supplies a similar if more elaborate definition of the offense, making it illegal to knowingly possess, transfer, produce, or otherwise use various identification documents for unlawful purposes.

As noted above, the number of identity theft cases has exploded over the past few years.  Due to the financial nature of the offense, the IRS frequently becomes involved in criminal investigations related to alleged identity theft.  As the IRS Criminal Investigation (CI) division explains, CI “detects and investigates tax fraud and other financial fraud, including fraud related to identity theft…  Additional areas involving identity theft include employment tax cases, abusive return preparer schemes, and narcotics and money laundering investigations.”

As of 2015, CI maintains four separate Scheme Development Centers (SDCs) across the United States.  Upon determining that identity theft may have occurred, the SDC will refer the case to a CI field office for further investigation.  Then, if CI personnel are able to gather sufficient evidence, CI will refer the case to the Department of Justice for prosecution.

As specified in Internal Revenue Manual section 9.5.3.3.11.1, it is IRS policy not to pursue identity theft as a “stand-alone violation.”  However, this is actually bad news for defendants, because it means that identity theft is usually charged alongside additional offenses, frequently money laundering or conspiracy.  As a result, identity theft investigations typically involve multiple felonies.

The IRS keeps public statistical records of its identity theft investigations – and their eventual outcomes.  The IRS reports the following data for fiscal years 2012 through 2014:

As the data makes amply clear, the IRS will not hesitate to launch an investigation into suspected criminal activities – and in many instances, the end result is a lengthy prison term.

The federal penalties for identity theft can vary, depending on the specific details of the offense.  Under 18 U.S. Code § 1028, potential sentences range anywhere from five to 30 years.

The Pennsylvania penalties for identity theft are only slightly more relaxed.  Under 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 4120, identity theft can be graded as a first degree misdemeanor (five years), third degree felony (seven years), or second degree felony (10 years), depending on the circumstances.

If you’ve been arrested for identity theft or other white collar crimes in Philadelphia or elsewhere in Pennsylvania, it is critically important that you contact an experienced criminal defense attorney right away.  To set up a free and completely confidential legal consultation, call the law offices of Krasner & Long at (215) 882-9752 today.  Our legal team has over 22 years of experience handling a wide array of fraud and theft charges.

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