Identity theft, which can be charged as a state crime or a federal crime depending on the circumstances, is an increasingly common criminal offense. But how does an investigation begin? When can you be charged with identity theft? And what penalties does a defendant face if they are convicted or plead guilty?
Identity theft may be charged when a person uses someone else’s personal or identifying information, like a Social Security number, without permission, and for an unlawful purpose. In most identity theft cases, defendants are accused of using an alleged victim’s personal information to commit acts of fraud, often at the victim’s financial expense.
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. Whatever you are charged with, our Philadelphia identity theft lawyers are prepared to help. You can discuss your case in a free legal consultation with the team at The Law Offices of Lloyd Long. Call us today at (215) 302-0171.
How Is Identity Theft Defined in Pennsylvania?
With regard to Pennsylvania law, the relevant statute is 18 Pa.C.S. § 4120, which states that a person commits identify theft if they obtain or use someone else’s personal identifying information without permission or consent, and the information is then used for an illegal or unlawful purpose.
“Identifying information” includes, but is not limited to, using another person’s image or personal information that would ordinarily be used to establish identity. Identifying information could include a photograph or computer image of another person, like a photo I.D. card. It could also include information like Social Security numbers, birth dates, phone numbers, addresses, banking information, payroll numbers, and more. Nearly any information that could be unique to a specific person could be considered “identifying information.”
It is important to understand that not all identifying information is perceived as secretive or sensitive. Thinks like birthdates and phone numbers, which people often willingly provide to others, may be used in identity theft cases.
How Identify Theft Is Charged at the Federal Level
Federal crimes may be charged anywhere in the United States, including Pennsylvania. However, federal crimes are charged according to federal law, not state law. This means that if you are charged with identify theft in Pennsylvania, but your charges are for federal violations, your case will follow federal, not state law.
When identity theft is charged as a federal offense, the pertinent statute is 18 U.S. Code § 1028. Please note the title of this statute does not specify identity theft by name but rather refers to fraudulent activity related to identifying information and documents.
Compared with the Pennsylvania statute, the federal statute supplies a similar if not more elaborate definition of the offense, making it illegal to knowingly possess, transfer, produce, or otherwise use various identification documents for unlawful purposes.
Federal identity theft charges commonly include fraud committed over the internet. Using someone else’s credit card information to make purchases on the internet may be charged as a federal identity theft violation. However, more serious violations or those on a larger scale, such as producing falsified documents like birth certificates or passports, could also be federal offenses.
How Is Identity Theft Committed in Pennsylvania?
Many victims of identity theft are left wondering how someone could have obtained their personal identifying information. One might assume that any crime involving theft requires taking something against the owner’s will. However, identity theft can happen in any number of ways, and some defendants are handed their victim’s personal information without objection. Knowing how the alleged offense happened will help our Pennsylvania criminal defense attorneys determine the best defense strategies for your case.
You could be charged with identity theft if you steal someone else’s personal identifying information. In today’s digital world, this is frequently accomplished online. You do not necessarily have to get the information directly from an alleged victim. You could instead obtain it from a third party, like their employer or bank. Many large-scale identity theft schemes involve hacking into large digital databases maintained by employers, banks, or credit institutions.
However, you could also be charged with identity theft in Pennsylvania or federally for using low-tech methods of obtaining identifying information. For example, stealing someone’s mail or other physical documents, like a birth certificate or Social Security card, could be considered acts of identity theft.
The way in which you allegedly obtained someone else’s personal identifying information may influence whether your charges are at the state or federal level. Larger scale operations, such as hacking into databases full of identifying information, are more likely to be charged at the federal level. Smaller acts of identity theft like using someone’s information to open utility accounts are more likely to be charged as a state crime.
National and Pennsylvania Identity Theft Statistics
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 investigates tax fraud and other activities that may be connected to identity theft. These other activities could include employment tax fraud, abusive tax preparer schemes, and money laundering cases.
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 can gather sufficient evidence, CI will refer the case to the Department of Justice for prosecution.
As specified in Internal Revenue Manual section 18.104.22.168.11.1, it is IRS policy not to pursue identity theft as a “stand-alone violation.” However, this is bad news for defendants because 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.
How to Defend Yourself Against Identity Theft Charges in Pennsylvania
Identity theft is more than simply having someone else’s personal information. The information must be obtained without consent or permission, and defendants often have unlawful purposes in mind for the information. Mounting a successful defense against identity theft charges requires undermining these criminal elements.
The best defense will depend on the nature of your charges. Are you charged with transferring falsified documents or producing them? Was your alleged offense connected to a larger criminal enterprise or scheme? If you are accused of using identity theft to steal money, how much money is allegedly involved? All these details and more affect the severity of your charges. Even if we cannot get your charges dropped or dismissed, we can work to get them downgraded to something with a more lenient penalty.
Determining the best defense is an individualized process that must be tailored to your unique needs. Our Northeast Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers can work with you to figure out the most effective defense strategies.
What Are the Penalties for Identity Theft in Pennsylvania?
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. If a defendant is guilty of producing or transferring an identification or authentication document issued by the United States government, or a birth certificate, driver’s license, or personal ID card, you could be imprisoned for up to 15 years. You could be similarly punished if the crime involved more than 5 documents, you knowingly possessed, created, or transferred an authentication instrument or device used to produce falsified documents, or you committed identity theft and stole an aggregate of $1,000 or more within 1 year.
However, if a defendant is guilty of any other production, transfer, or use of identification or authentication documents or features, they may face up to 5 years in prison. If your offense was related to drug trafficking, a violent crime, or comes after a previous conviction for identity theft, you could face up to 20 years in prison. If the offense is related to acts of domestic terrorism, you could be imprisoned for up to 30 years.
The Pennsylvania penalties for identity theft are only slightly more relaxed. Under 18 Pa.C.S. § 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 your identity theft case involves a value of less than $2,000, you may be found guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor and sentenced to up to 5 years in jail. If the total value of your alleged identity theft case is more than $2,000, you could be guilty of a third-degree felony punishable by up to 7 years in prison. Finally, if your offense was allegedly committed as part of some larger criminal conspiracy, you could be guilty of a second-degree felony and face up to 10 years in prison, regardless of how much money was actually involved. You may also be charged with a second-degree felony regardless of the money involved if you are facing your third or subsequent offense.
Contact Our Philadelphia Identity Theft Defense Lawyers Today
If you’ve been arrested for identity theft or other white-collar crimes in Philadelphia, it is critically important that you contact an experienced criminal defense attorney in Philadelphia right away. To set up a free, confidential legal consultation about your fraud and theft charges, call the Law Offices of Lloyd Long at (215) 302-0171 today.