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. A group of criminals used her wallet contents to steal her identity. Jessica has spent years filing police reports, notifying government authorities, and canceling applications at financial institutions.
Of all the dangers of identity theft, having your identity used by criminals can be the most damaging. 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 how criminal identity theft happens, how you can tell if someone is using your identity to commit crimes, what to do to stay safe, and how to clear your name.
What Is Criminal Identity Theft? How Bad Is It?
Criminal identity theft occurs when fraudsters provide a stolen ID or someone else’s personally identifying information (PII) to police after being stopped for a crime.
For example, if someone gains access to your ID or personal data, they can:
- 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. This can cause 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.
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.
Do this! Check if your personal information is for sale on the Dark Web
Criminals only need a few pieces of your personal information to start framing you for crimes — and it’s easier than ever for them to find this information 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.
It’s not easy to go and check if your data is being sold on the Dark Web. There are many different marketplaces on the Dark Web, and access is often restricted.
Automated Dark Web monitoring services like Aura can scan these marketplaces for your sensitive data and register a fraud alert when your information is listed for sale.
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:
- 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.
- 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 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 →
7 Ways To Protect Yourself From Criminal Identity Theft
- Use strong passwords, two-factor authentication
- Keep your wallet, purse, and physical IDs secure
- Limit the data you share online
- Don’t use public Wi-Fi
- Learn to recognize a phishing attack
- Use an identity theft protection service
- Don’t reveal sensitive information over the phone
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. For added security, enable 2FA, which requires a special code along with your password, to gain access to your accounts.
What to do:
- Create a reusable password formula. Instead of reusing passwords for multiple accounts, create a formula that’s easy to remember. Consider keyphrases that stitch multiple words, numbers, and punctuation marks together. If you’re worried about remembering multiple passwords, consider a secure password manager (such as the one that comes with every Aura account).
- Make sure your phone, computer, and other devices are password-protected. Passcodes are better than swipe gestures. If you lose your device, passcodes should still protect your data.
- Enable two-factor authentication for your online 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).
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.
What to do:
- Only carry the cards and documents that you need with you. The more credit cards or sensitive documents that you have with you, the higher the risk that you’ll lose one.
- Make a list of documents that you carry in your wallet or purse. Check your list regularly to make sure nothing is missing. Update the list to remove cards and documents that you don’t frequently use.
- Find a secure place at home for your ID and cards. A safe, lockbox, or other secure location is the best place for your passport, Social Security card, and extra credit cards.
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 worse, data broker companies collect personal information about you and sell it to marketers and scammers. Try to limit your digital footprint by reducing what you share online.
What to do:
- Never provide your Social Security number (SSN) for services online. Many organizations allow you to provide alternate identification. If it’s a requirement, ask how they’ll keep it safe.
- Use the “Guest” checkout on e-commerce websites. Don’t make new e-commerce accounts unless you must, and never save your credit card information.
- Change your social media habits. Avoid sharing personal information publicly on social media platforms. Anything you share — about your family, career, or personal interests — can be used against you by scammers.
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.
What to do:
- Use your mobile hotspot when online in public. Don’t use public Wi-Fi (such as at cafes, airports, or hotels). Instead, use a hotspot or wait until you’re home to do any sensitive online activities.
- Protect your home network with a strong password. Your home Wi-Fi router supports traffic encryption. Ask your internet provider how to set a password for your home network.
- Encrypt your network connection with a VPN. A virtual private network stops criminals from being able to spy on you online. Even if they break into your Wi-Fi network, they won’t be able to see any of your data. 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.
What to do:
- Double-check the sender’s email address. Make sure the email is being sent from an official domain (for example, “Amazon.com” or “Paypal.com”). Always click on the “from” name to see the actual email address, as scammers will try to spoof the email name to trick you.
- Never click on links or download attachments from unsolicited messages. Links often take you to fake websites designed to steal your personal information and passwords. Instead, go directly to the company or organization’s website and log in to your account.
- Don’t trust emails that come from public domains. Every email account belongs to a domain, which is named after the “@” symbol in the address. Banks, government agencies, and legitimate institutions always send emails from their own domains, not from public domains (like a Gmail address).
📚 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.
What to do:
- Sign up for a top-rated identity theft protection service like Aura. Aura can monitor public court records for sensitive data and warn you when your credit history changes. Aura also monitors your sensitive information — including email addresses, credit card numbers, passports, and more — and warns you of suspicious activity.
- Find out how to ask your local court to seal records. The process is different in every U.S. state and may require a judge to review the case.
- Get a free credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com. Look for unexpected accounts or transactions and credit inquiries that you didn’t request.
7. Don’t reveal sensitive information over the phone, via emails, or in texts
Many scams revolve around calling, emailing, or texting victims and impersonating trusted institutions and agencies.
Fraudsters often invent a plausible situation that creates a sense of urgency. But legitimate organizations will never ask for sensitive data over the phone or via email — especially passwords, PINs, or your SSN.
What to do:
- Don’t believe people who call and ask for private or financial information. Ask them to prove that they are who they say they are. If you think the request is legitimate, hang up and call the organization back using its official phone number to make sure you’re talking to the right person.
- Take your number off of marketing lists. Scammers often use these lists to find victims to target. Aura can automatically monitor data broker lists for your personal information and request removal on your behalf.
- Always ask for a secure way to transmit information. Legitimate organizations will provide you with ample information about how to secure your data.
📚 Related: Is Discover Identity Theft Protection Worth It? →
How To Clear Your Name From Criminal Identity Theft
If you discover that someone has used your identity to commit a crime, you must act quickly. The process of clearing your name may be difficult; but starting early significantly increases your chances of success.
- 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.