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When Did Identity Theft Become a Crime?

Lisa Belluck  — May 12, 2019

Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the United States with as many as 9 million people having their identities stolen annually. Without proper identity protection, you could be one of them.

It seems like it appeared out of nowhere just a few decades ago, but there have been some forms of identity theft in existence for roughly 200 years in this country. This begs two questions: How did identity theft start, and when did identity theft become a crime?

Early Forms of Identity Theft

The earliest instances of identity theft started in the first days of voter registration in the United States, which was at the start of the 18th century. Instances of identity theft were, in those days, uncommon and largely associated with ballot stuffing. Fake IDs were initially used in these instances.

Nowadays, people use fake IDs for skirting drinking laws. This, however, only started growing in popularity after prohibition was repealed in the 1930s. When 21 became the national drinking age in 1984, fake IDs became ubiquitous for many college students, and identity theft started rising. The term itself was first coined in 1964.

This, however, was not the only kind of early theft. Another common form that’s prevalent today has to do with fake Social Security numbers. This was sparked by the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965. For the first time, there was a large-scale classification of illegal immigrants in the United States due to previous laws allowing seasonal migrant workers being superseded.

By itself, it didn’t lead to massive amounts of identity theft. The increased requirements for government documents to prove that you were here legally, however, did lead to fake Social Security cards and driver’s licenses. When the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 led to the implementation of the I-9 form, this form of theft took off.

When Did Identity Theft Become a Crime?

As technology improved and we became more dependent on computers and credit/debit cards, the opportunities and damage caused by credit theft grew exponentially.

In 1998, Federal Trade Commission members appeared before the US Senate and discussed how identity credit theft was leading to loan fraud, mortgage fraud and credit card fraud among other problems. This led to the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, which made identity theft a separate federal crime for the first time.

In 2003, the Identity Theft Deterrence Act strengthened the definition of the crime to include possessing any form of identification to “knowingly transfer, possess, or use without lawful authority”.

Even though the penalty for theft is strict with as much as 30 years in prison for a conviction, there are still many people who fall victim to this insidious crime. With the right levels of identity protection, you can avoid becoming one of these victims.