Identity theft involves taking and using someone else's personal identifying information without their permission. It can also consist of selling or transferring another’s data, knowing that it will be used for fraud. You could be accused of identity theft for engaging in several types of conduct, such as obtaining personal information by installing malware on someone’s computer and using the data to open a line of credit in that individual’s name. In California, identity theft can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, which means that a conviction could lead to incarceration and/or fines.
What Does Identity Theft Consist Of?
Generally, identity theft occurs when someone obtains the personal identifying information of another individual through various means. They then use or attempt to use that data without the actual owner’s consent and with the intent to commit fraud.
For example, someone could:
- Buy goods or services with another person’s credit card,
- Open a new credit card in someone else’s name
- Get an individual's tax refund, or
- Obtain medical care using another’s insurance information.
California prohibits identity theft under Penal Code § 530.5. The law makes it illegal to get the personal identifying information of another individual and use it for unlawful purposes.
The statute also concerns incidents where someone intends to defraud and:
- Possesses the personal identifying information of another,
- Sells or transfers the personal identifying information of another, or
- Provides someone with the personal identifying information of another, knowing the data will be used for fraud.
Intent to defraud means using deception to cause a loss of money, goods, services, or any valuable item.
California’s identity theft law lists various pieces of data considered personal identifying information. These include the following:
- Telephone number
- Health insurance number
- Taxpayer identification number
- Driver’s license
- Social Security Number
- Employee identification number
- Bank account number
- Mother’s maiden name
- Personal identification number
- Passport number
How Identity Theft Can Occur
Individuals might use several different methods to obtain someone else’s personal identifying information.
A few examples of identity theft techniques include:
- Credit card skimming: This method involves attaching a skimming device to an ATM, gas pump, or other unattended card readers. When the consumer puts their card in the machine, the skimmer pulls the data from it.
- Data breaches: This occurs when someone hacks into a company’s system without authorization. The individual takes consumer data stored in the system, such as passwords, financial records, and/or credit card numbers.
- Mail theft: This traditional identity theft offense involves a person going through someone else’s mail. They can obtain bank account details, credit and debit cards, tax information, and other personal data.
- Malware attacks: With this identity theft technique, an individual sends a link or attachment or creates a website containing malicious software (malware). When the person who receives it clicks on the link or attachment, the malware gets downloaded onto their computer. It either pulls personal data from the receiver’s system or allows the sender to monitor the receiver’s computer activity.
- Phishing attacks: This involves sending someone an email, claiming to be a legitimate business. The sender asks the receiver to either click on a link or open an attachment. The purpose may be to download malware on the receiver’s computer or have the receiver provide their personal information.
- Phone scams: This is another traditional identity theft method. It consists of calling another person and posing as a legitimate company. The caller asks pointed questions to get personal information from the individual they called.
The Penalties for Identity Theft
In California, identity theft is a wobbler. That means it can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. The level will depend on the facts of the case and the prosecutor’s determination after analyzing the situation and examining the defendant's background.
If pursued as a misdemeanor, the potential penalties for identity theft include:
- Up to 1 year in county jail, and/or
- Up to $1,000 in fines
Felony-level identity theft is punishable by:
- Up to 3 years of imprisonment and/or
- Up to $10,000 in fines
Get Help from a Defense Attorney
Whether you have been charged with misdemeanor or felony identity theft, a criminal defense lawyer can be a significant help in challenging the accusations. They can assess your circumstances, review evidence, and develop a legal strategy tailored for you.
If you need legal help in Santa Rosa, schedule a consultation with the Law Offices of Evan E. Zelig, P.C. by calling (707) 418-5352 or submitting an online contact form today.