Identity Theft Research Review

Identity theft has become perhaps the defining crime of the information age, with an estimated 9 million or more incidents each year. [1] Publicity regarding severe cases of identity theft in the print and electronic media and portrayal of the risk of identity theft in a number of effective television commercials have raised public awareness about identity theft. Arguably, however, few persons are aware of the complexities of the many issues involved with this crime, which is really a large set of fraudulent activities ranging in size from minor swindles to major crimes using stolen identities. These fraudulent actions are perpetrated by a broad spectrum of offenders, from family members to shadowy, international criminal gangs.

Over the past decade, the Federal Government and most States have passed legislation to impose criminal sanctions on identify theft (See Identity Theft Legislation). Efforts to combat identity theft have been hampered, however, by the elusiveness of a definition, its overlap with the elements of many other crimes, its long-term and multijurisdictional nature (including the time that may elapse before discovery), and questions as to whether law enforcement agencies or financial institutions are better equipped to combat it.

This NIJ-sponsored study drew from available scientific studies and other sources (through January 2005) to assess what is known about identity theft and what further research is needed. The study's researchers call for further research in areas relating to prevention, including reduction of harm to individual victims, financial institutions, and society.

What did the researchers find?

  • Although anyone is potentially vulnerable to identity theft (particularly theft of credit card-related information), individuals are more likely to be victimized by persons who have access to their identifying information, such as family members and persons with whom they share living quarters.
  • Identity theft generally involves three stages: acquisition, use, and discovery. Evidence suggests that the longer it takes to discover the theft, the greater the loss incurred and the smaller the likelihood of successful prosecution. Older persons and those with less education are less likely to discover the identity theft quickly and to report it after discovery.
  • The access to personal information about potential victims and the anonymity the Internet offers would-be thieves are major facilitators of identity theft.
  • More research is needed to identify the best ways to prevent identity theft crimes. Research should address the three main areas of vulnerability to identity theft—
    1. Practices and operating environments of document-issuing agencies that allow offenders to exploit opportunities to obtain identity documents.
    2. Practices and operating environments of document-authenticating agencies that allow offenders access to identity data, subsequently used for financial gain, avoiding arrest, or remaining anonymous.
    3. The structure and operations of the information systems involved with the operational procedures of agents in (1) and (2).
  • Harm from identity theft crimes involves individuals and businesses. The extent of harm done to the victims and to society at large is unknown.


[1] Better Business Bureau, "New Research Shows That Identity Theft Is More Prevalent Offline With Paper Than Online," Press release, January 26, 2005.

Date Created: June 7, 2010