What Is Criminal Identity Theft? (How To Protect Yourself)

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Criminal identity theft

Hari Ravichandran

CEO and Founder of Aura

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    Are Con Artists Using Your Identity To Commit Crimes?

    One year after her wallet was stolen, Los Angeles-based journalist Jessica Roy went on a crime spree [*]. She stole a brand-new Tesla, crashed a BMW, and wrote bad checks for tens of thousands of dollars at a time.

    Except it wasn’t Jessica. Instead, a group of criminals used her wallet contents to steal her identity — causing Jessica to spent years filing police reports, notifying government agencies, and canceling applications at financial institutions.

    Of all the dangers of identity theft, having your identity used by criminals can be the most damaging, as it can take months or even years to clear your name.

    Jessica describes fighting criminal identity theft as an “unpaid part-time job.” Others compare it to a chronic condition, with remissions, flare-ups, and no cure.

    With criminals operating across the country (and around the world), it can be nearly impossible to know where and when you’re being framed.  

    In this guide, we’ll explain what criminal identity theft is, how to tell if someone is using your identity to commit crimes, and what to do to clear your name and stay safe.

    🏆 Get award-winning protection against identity theft. Aura monitors and protects your identity, finances, and online accounts from hackers and scammers. Try Aura free for 14 days and secure your identity against criminals.

    What Is Criminal Identity Theft? How Bad Is It?

    Criminal identity theft occurs when someone uses your stolen ID or personally identifying information (PII) when stopped by the police for committing a crime.

    Here’s what criminals can do if they gain access to your ID or personal data:

    • Present your ID documents when stopped for traffic violations and force you to pay the fines.
    • Assume your identity when arrested and then disappear, leaving you in contempt of court and needing to deal with removing the criminal history from your record.
    • Provide your identity instead of their own when questioned about crimes they committed.
    • Attach criminal activity to your record instead of their own, causing you to fail background checks.
    • Take out loans and open bank accounts in your name. When the debts are not paid, collectors will come to you to close the balance.
    • Rent cars, stay in hotels, and write bad checks in your name. Once authorities discover the fraud, they will try to prosecute you.

    While all types of identity theft are crimes under federal law, criminal identity theft is specifically defined under the Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 [*], which states that:

    “It’s unlawful for anyone to knowingly transfer or use, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or otherwise promote, carry on, or facilitate any unlawful activity.”

    In the worst case scenarios, criminal identity theft will leave you with a criminal record that will be challenging and stressful to dispute.

    📚 Related: Identity Theft Resources For Victims: Where To Get Help

    How Do Criminals Steal Your Identity?

    Criminals have numerous schemes and methods for stealing your identity. In order to commit criminal identity theft, they need data from at least one ID document, such as your passport or your driver’s license number. 

    Here’s how they can easily get that information (often without your knowledge): 

    • Buying leaked data on the Dark Web. Entire databases of stolen personal data are available for sale on the Dark Web. Identity thieves can purchase individual documents for as little as $70, with forged physical IDs going for $150 on average [*].
    • Stealing physical documents. Physical ID theft is one of the easiest ways for scammers to start using your identity. Anyone who steals your driver’s license, passport, or other identifying document can use it to assume your identity. 
    • Using a stolen birth certificate to obtain a new ID. Anyone can request new identification on the basis of their birth certificate. With your stolen birth certificate, fraudsters could obtain an ID with their photo and your name.
    • Creating a synthetic identity using incomplete data. Synthetic identity theft is one of the most common types of identity theft. In this scam, criminals combine real and false information to create “new” identities — for example, creating a fake identity by using your name with a stolen Social Security number (SSN).
    • Phishing attacks and email scams. Fraudsters impersonate companies, services, or government agencies to trick you into providing your sensitive information. Phishing attacks can occur via emails, text messages, or phone calls.
    • Keyloggers and malware. Hackers can infect your devices with malware that steals your personal information. Sophisticated viruses called keyloggers can even record every mouse click or key tap — giving hackers access to your passwords, account numbers, and more.
    🛡 Protect your identity, finances, and devices. Aura’s all-in-one digital security solution has been rated #1 by Money.com, Forbes, Tech Radar, and more. Try Aura free for 14 days and protect yourself from scammers.

    How To Tell If Someone Is Using Your Identity To Commit Crimes

    Most people only learn they are victims of criminal identity theft after the crime has already occurred — for example, if you’re turned down for a loan, fail a background check, or are notified that there’s a warrant out for your arrest. 

    However, there are ways to uncover identity fraud before these events occur. 

    If any of the following warning signs are familiar to you, you may be at risk:

    • Your credit report isn’t accurate. Your credit history is the best place to see early warning signs of fraud. You can request a free credit report from any of the major credit bureaus, or sign up for a credit monitoring service to automatically monitor your credit history for suspicious activity.
    • You’ve recently lost an important piece of ID. A lost driver’s license, passport, or state ID can easily end up in the wrong hands. Replacing lost documents doesn’t reduce the risk. The original is still out there somewhere.
    • You get an alert from your identity theft protection service that your name appeared in court records. Aura monitors criminal and court records across the country and can alert you if your identity was stolen and used by a criminal. Each alert includes the offense, where it occurred, and advice on what to do. You can try Aura free for 14 days and see if criminals are using your identity. 
    Example of a criminal record alert from Aura
    Here’s what a criminal record alert from Aura might look like.
    • You receive unusually specific scam calls and phishing messages. Generic scams don’t use a person’s name, address, or date of birth. Be cautious if you receive suspicious messages that include private data.
    • Your bank statements include charges or accounts you don’t recognize. There is no legitimate reason for strange charges or new accounts to appear on your statement. Verify any unusual activity with your bank. Try to get as many details as possible.
    • Unfamiliar mail is delivered to your address. Be wary of credit card statements, bills, and financial reports from agencies you don’t recognize. Someone may be using your name and address to take out loans or open new accounts.
    • Expected mail has gone missing. Identity thieves may steal letters, envelopes, and packages directly from your home or mailbox. Stolen mail is an easy way for criminals to steal your identity and commit crimes or misdemeanors.
    • You receive unexpected SMS verification codes. Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a standard security feature that uses your phone to verify your identity. Unexpected verification requests may indicate an attempt to steal your identity.
    • Your tax return data is not accurate. Identity thieves may report fake taxes in your name, hoping to receive your tax return check. When the check arrives, they cash it and leave you to deal with the IRS when the scam catches up with you.

    📚 Related: How To Tell if Someone Is Scamming You Online

    Do this! Check if your personal information is for sale on the Dark Web

    Over the past few years, billions of pieces of personal data have been stolen in data breaches, putting almost every American at risk of identity theft. For example, if you’ve ever had to upload a photo of your ID to an online service or company to verify your identity, it could be available to hackers on the Dark Web.

    Use Aura’s free leaked password scanner to quickly check if your email address has been included in a recent data breach. If it has, it’s possible that more sensitive data of yours was also leaked.

    Aura free Dark Web scanner

    7 Ways To Protect Yourself From Criminal Identity Theft

    1. Use strong passwords, two-factor authentication
    2. Keep your wallet, purse, and physical IDs secure
    3. Limit the data you share online
    4. Don’t use public Wi-Fi
    5. Learn to recognize a phishing attack
    6. Use an identity theft protection service
    7. Freeze your credit (or set up a fraud alert)

    Protecting yourself from criminal identity theft is much the same as preventing other types of identity theft. Here are a few of the critical steps you should take to stop criminals from gaining access to your sensitive information:

    1. Always use strong passwords and two-factor authentication (2FA)

    Your online accounts (especially your email) contain more than enough sensitive information for a criminal to use for identity theft. Make sure that you use secure, complex, and unique passwords for every account and device.

    If you’re worried about remembering multiple passwords, consider a secure password manager (such as the one that comes with every Aura account).

    For added security, enable 2FA, which requires a special code along with your password, to gain access to your accounts. It’s also better to use an authenticator app rather than SMS for receiving 2FA codes (as hackers can hack your phone to steal your 2FA codes).

    Aura online identity theft protection
    Aura securely stores your passwords and can warn you if your accounts have been compromised.

    2. Keep your wallet, purse, and physical IDs secure at all times

    It’s much easier for criminals to steal your identity if they have your physical credit card or ID. These documents can be used during crimes (such as making online purchases with your credit card number) or leveraged to obtain even more of your identifying documents.

    To stay safe, only carry the cards and documents that you need with you and make sure you keep a running list of what’s in your wallet or purse (in case it’s stolen).

    Take action: If any of your physical IDs or sensitive documents are missing, you could be at risk of identity theft. Try Aura’s top-rated identity theft protection service to safeguard your identity and finances from fraudsters.

    3. Limit the data you share with companies and online platforms

    Every time you open a new account, make an online purchase, or fill out a government form online, you give up data that could be leaked in a breach. Even personal information you share publicly on social media platforms — such as about your family, career, or personal interests — can be used against you by scammers.

    Try to limit your digital footprint by reducing what you share online. Be especially careful with sensitive information such as your Social Security number (SSN), account passwords, or two-factor authentication codes.

    4. Don’t use public Wi-Fi, or use a virtual private network (VPN) when online

    Hackers can easily hack public Wi-Fi and spy on you. These scams — known as man-in-the-middle attacks — allow scammers to intercept any data that you enter on a site, including passwords and account details.

    Try to use your mobile hotspot when in public (rather than public Wi-Fi networks) and protect your home network with a strong password and a virtual private network (VPN). Every Aura plan includes a military grade VPN to keep you safe from hackers.

    📚 Related: 10 Dangers of Public Wi-Fi You Didn’t Know About

    5. Learn to spot the warning signs of a phishing attack

    Phishing scams seek to trick you into giving up sensitive data via emails, texts, phone calls, or social media messages. Fraudsters commonly impersonate government agencies (the FBI, IRS, etc.) or companies to persuade you into clicking on malicious links or entering your personal information.

    Always double-check a sender’s email address to ensure it’s coming from an official domain (for example, “Amazon.com” or “Paypal.com”). And as a precaution, don’t click on links or download attachments from unsolicited messages as these can take you to fake websites designed to steal your personal information and passwords.

    📚 Related: How To Tell if An Email Is From a Scammer

    6. Use an identity theft protection service to monitor your personal information

    Court records are generally made available to the public — but few people have the time (or desire) to actively monitor them. Aura’s top-rated identity theft protection service can monitor public records as well as private records, like your credit history.

    This ensures that you’re notified if someone is arrested for a crime in your name or uses your identity to open new accounts or take out loans.

    Pro tip: You can get a free copy of your credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com and check it for unexpected accounts or fraudulent information.

    Take action: Protect yourself from the worst consequences of identity theft. Every Aura membership includes $1 million in insurance coverage for eligible losses due to identity theft. Try Aura free for 14 days and start safeguarding your identity from scammers.

    7. Freeze your credit (or set up a fraud alert)

    Fraudsters are almost always financial motivated. By freezing your credit, you can prevent anyone from opening new accounts or taking out fraudulent loans in your name.

    To freeze your credit, you’ll need to contact each of the three credit bureaus individually (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion). Here’s how to get in touch with them:

    Experian Security Freeze — P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013
    Equifax Information Services LLC — P.O. Box 105788, Atlanta, GA 30348-5788
    TransUnion LLC – P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19016

    Alternatively, you can set up a fraud alert. However, this is less secure as it only suggests that lenders verify your identity before extending credit in your name (whereas a freeze prevents them entirely).

    📚 Related: Fraud Alert vs. Credit Freeze: Which Is Better?

    Did a Criminal Use Your Identity? How To Clear Your Name

    • File an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at IdentityTheft.gov. This report will help you prove that your identity was stolen and that you weren’t responsible for the crimes.
    • File a police report with your local law enforcement agency. You may also have to file an additional report at the police department in the jurisdiction where the crime was committed.
    • Insist that the police verify your identity. You may have your fingerprints scanned, or supply other evidence to support your claim. Remember, the police may suspect you are the identity thief.
    • If someone used your identity during a traffic stop, contact the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). If the traffic stop occurred in a different state, you must contact that state’s DMV.
    • Gather your documentation, including the case number for the arrest and your FTC identity theft report. If you have the arrest warrant, you should include it as well.
    • Set a court date to obtain a Certificate of Identity Theft. This process is different in every state. For example, the State of California has a six-step application process for obtaining a California identity theft certificate. You will need to prove you are “factually innocent” of the crime committed in your name.
    • Find out if your state has an Identity Theft Passport Program. The National Conference of State Legislature publishes data on each state’s identity theft passport program. It also includes information on restitution laws and forfeiture provisions. Contact your state’s attorney general to find out more.

    📌 Need more help? Aura’s Fraud Resolution Specialists are available 24/7 to help you deal with the fallout from identity theft. Get in touch to find out how we can help.

    The Bottom Line: Don’t Do Time for an Identity Thief’s Crime

    Few experiences are as disruptive and complicated as being framed for someone else’s crime. The fight to clear your name can take years. But you don’t have to go through it alone.

    Aura’s top-rated identity theft protection can help you keep your personal data safe, and provide early warnings when suspicious activities occur. And if the worst should happen, you’ll experience peace of mind knowing that you have 24/7 access to a skilled team of Fraud Resolution Specialists along with $1 million in identity theft insurance.

    Keep your identity safe from scammers. Try Aura free for 14 days

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