Classification to Mitigation: What You Need to Know about the Multiple Faces of Identity Theft



Identity theft is a term now common in the American vernacular.  Though the term is familiar, what it represents is often misunderstood by large segments of the consumer population.  Many people commonly associate the term with someone making illegal use of a credit card number.  By most current definitions however, that type of crime is more properly referred to as credit card fraud and is no longer considered a true example of identity theft.  So what exactly does the term “identity theft” mean?

The best working definition of true identity theft is simple: The improper or illegal use of someone’s personal identifying Information (PII).  It’s that simple.  PII is defined as any information that uniquely identifies you as you.  More specifically, your social security number, passport, birth certificate, driver’s license or state ID card, and similar documents that alone, or in combination, are unique to you as a person.  ITRC considers that your PII can be used to commit several different types of identity theft.  We classify these as five (5) basic types of identity theft:  financial, criminal, medical, governmental, and cyber/reputational.  There is also child identity theft, but other than the age of the victim, these are always one or more of the 5 types above.

  • Financial: Financial Identity theft is simply when someone uses another’s PII for financial gain.  This can include using a SSN to open a new line of credit, a utility bill, a student loan, etc.  Unlike the unlawful use of an existing, and legitimate credit card, these new fraudulent accounts may exist for extended periods of time before the victim becomes aware of them.  Checking your credit reports or getting a call from a collection agency are two of the most common ways financial identity theft is discovered. Victims should file a police report and then dispute any fraudulent charges with the various affected merchants and creditors.
  • Criminal:  Criminal Identity Theft occurs when someone has successfully impersonated the victim when dealing with law enforcement.  This can be accomplished a multitude of ways.  The most common is when a thief uses a victim’s SSN, Name, and perhaps date of birth to acquire a driver’s license.  In the event this thief is cited or arrested by a member of law enforcement, the thief will pretend to be the victim thereby creating a fraudulent criminal history for the victim.  Victims of this form of ID theft should have their local police fingerprint and mug shot them, and when appropriate send that information to whatever the arresting or citing law enforcement might be, so they can get issued a letter of clearance from the court, clearing them of responsibility.
  • Medical: This form of identity fraud occurs when a criminal makes use of the victim’s PII (such as an SSN or Medical insurance card/number/Medicare card etc.) to receive medical treatments and benefits and then leaves it to the victim and their insurance carrier to pay the bills.  These events may also leave mixed medical records, which can be a significant problem to the victim.  There is also a growing trend used by illegal pharmaceutical sellers as well as prescription pill addicts to use someone’s identity to steal prescription drugs without leaving a paper trail back to them for anyone to follow. Victims of medical identity theft need to get in touch with their insurance provider as well as the place where the procedures were performed, or where the medical supplies/drugs were purchased, and inform them of the fraud.  This should include showing proof of that this misuse was brought to the attention of law enforcement.
  • Governmental:  This is when the victim’s PII is used to acquire government benefits that the thief would not otherwise be entitled to.  Things like government grants and loans, welfare assistance, even a large tax return a victim might be owed from the IRS are all strong motivators for criminals.  Often those in this country illegally will have reasons to engage in governmental Identity theft in order to find gainful employment, or avoid detection.  In addition to previously listed steps, victims should request an “earnings history report” at their local branch of the Social Security Administration.  This report will show where someone has been working, and  can be useful in mitigating the fraud.

Cyber/Reputational identity theft is the newest emerging form of identity theft.  This involves the use of one’s name, likeness, online passwords or other associations in order to exploit or damage one’s reputation, or perhaps to gain access to their contacts or emails, or just to spam someone’s online relationships with advertisements or Trojans.  Mitigation for this type of theft is best done through contacting the site administrator. (i.e. for a fraudulent Facebook profile, the only way to resolve the issue is through dealing with Facebook staff directly).


Classification to Mitigation: What You Need to Know about the Multiple Faces of Identity Theft was written by Matt Davis.  Matt is a Victim Advisor at the Identity Theft Resource Center.

Identity Theft Resource Center® (ITRC) is a nonprofit, nationally respected organization dedicated exclusively to the understanding of identity theft and related issues. The ITRC provides victim and consumer support, public education, and advisory services to governmental agencies, legislators, law enforcement, and businesses.