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Identity Theft - A Threat to Society

Identity theft is one of the pressing issues faced by all the countries in the world. No country is spared as identity theft has become a frequent happening in every nook and corner. In India, Identity theft has been found to be the rapidly growing white collar crime which has affected numerous individuals and it remains to be the leading type of data breach.

Pursuant to the breach level index study conducted by a digital security firm, Gemalto in 2017, approximately 3.24 million records were stolen, compromised or lost in India. Identity theft accounted for 58% of the data breach incidents in that year.

But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed- Shakespeare

Concept of Identity:

In general parlance, identity of an individual is a collection of unique and stable characteristics associated with the person which distinguishes him/her from others.1 It includes the peculiar qualities of every individual and varies from person to person.

In legal terms, identity is the recognition aspect of an individual in the government records such as the birth certificate, driving license, voter id etc. It may contain the name, address, photograph and various other information about an individual. It helps the government to keep record of the people within their territory and for various other purposes such as census etc. In identity theft crimes, identity refer to any information which is used by an identity thief to acquire the identity of the victim to commit numerous crimes.

Identity Theft:

Identity theft which is commonly known as identity fraud is regarded as a serious crime in which a criminal illegally obtains or gains access to someone else’s personal information consisting of their identity and use it to obtain credit, gain any financial benefit or services in the name of the victim. It may result in severe consequences to the victim as he may be held liable for the criminal’s actions.

He may also give a false identification to the police resulting in a criminal record in the name of the victim. Identity theft was possible even before the onset of internet era as conventional methods were used for such thefts. But the technological advancements made it difficult to track the person committing such thefts. By creating fake accounts or by impersonating other people by creating multiple ids, such criminals pave way for crimes such as terrorism, illegal immigration and espionage.

This Identity theft involves mainly two activities:

  1. Collection of Personal Information.
  2. Using the collected information in a wrongful manner.
Identity theft is classified into two types: account takeover and true name identity theft. Account takeover identity theft means that the criminal gains access to the victim’s existing accounts through the personal information that he had collected. He may run up a huge bill before the victim even comes to know about such theft. True name identity theft means the criminal opens new credit card account or bank account in the name of the victim and he may have to face serious consequences for the crimes he never committed.

The human imagination and creativity are endless when it comes to stealing things- Peter Keane

Techniques used for Collecting Information:

The following are the most common techniques by which a criminal could get hold of the personally identifiable information of individuals.
  • Dumpster diving- one of the traditional methods the dumpster divers use is to retrieve personal information by rummaging through the public trash dumpsters. They may be able to gather information about individuals from financial statements, cheques, bills, discarded credit cards etc.

  • Shoulder surfing- the thief stands next to a person in public and discreetly observes him as he fills out his personal information in a form or overhears him when the victim is talking to someone else.

  • Phishing- phishing is to undertake the identity of any phony organizations to get the information about individuals through email, SMS and phone calls. The email may contain any malware or may redirect to other fraudulent websites that steals such information when the victim discloses his personal information.

  • Skimming- the information in credit cards can be skimmed by hand-held card readers. Another method is that the criminals may manipulate the ATM machines or any other machines by stealthily inserting a device that seizes the information of the victim who uses it. Some complex skimming devices sends an automatic message to such thief whenever a person swipes his card in the machine.

  • Hacking- hacking is deemed to be an offence that violates the fundamental right to privacy under the constitution of India. The hackers use malware like viruses to direct the information to their computer. They may either decrypt and use it or sell it to other people who commits fraud using that information.

  • Straight forward theft- the criminals simply steals the purses of people in crowded place or steals their personal records from any office or companies and use it commit crimes.

  • Vishing- the criminal calls the victim and tricks the victim to disclose his personal information by pretending to be a bank representative or any officer collecting such information.
Nigeria 419 scam is the famous identity theft case where the criminal intimates to the victim that he has won a huge lottery amount and thereby asks for his account details. Another method is by which the criminal sends email to the victim pretending to be a rich family member of a dead African millionaire. He says that he wants to use the victim’s account to transfer money in return for a particular amount of money as his country is in a political turmoil.
There are various kinds of Identity theft which are as follows:

Medical Identity Theft:

Medical identity theft is a rising problem in medical institutions. It is the deceitful practice of using an individual’s name or his personally identifiable information such as insurance information to receive medical benefits or services without his knowledge nor permission. The fraudster may also use such information to claim falsely for medical goods or services resulting in the creation of fabricated medical records in the victim’s name.

The founder of the world privacy forum, Pam Dixon coined the term “medical identity theft” in 2006 and laid down a report in which she defined the term for the first time. Several people are adversely affected by medical identity theft including the victims and healthcare providers. It may sometimes result in life threatening situations as the thief’s medical history and diagnoses gets mixed up with the victim’s records.

Hence the victim may receive the wrong treatment and medications and also bear the financial burdens for which he never got treated. It may be days before such theft is even found out creating havoc in the victim’s life. The fraudsters may use the information to steal costly medical services, medical equipment, surgeries, and prescription drugs or sell it in the black market for a high price.

Prevention of Medical Identity Theft:

  • Any data breaches in the medical institution should be notified to the proper authorities and the consumers.
  • Constant monitoring of medical records must be done.
  • The employees having access to patient’s data and records should be monitored.
  • Insurance related papers should be safeguarded.
  • Be cautious while providing personal or insurance information to the health care provider.

Child Identity Theft:

Child identity theft is on the rise. When a criminal unlawfully obtains access to a child’s social security number and uses it to open a bank account, taking out loans, apply for credit cards or for government benefits etc, it is known as child identity theft in foreign countries like USA. It is a crime which particularly targets the personally identifiable information of children. Once a child is born, the parents apply for a social security number which is necessary to open bank account for the child, to cover for medical expenses, to claim the child as dependant in the income tax return and to apply for Government services etc.

The child may apply for credit or student loans after few years and until then the crime will be undetected. Children are targeted more as the fraud may go unnoticed for years. Such theft may affect the child’s future as the thieves may obtain finance using the child’s account resulting in plenty of debts or the criminal could have been arrested for a crime using the stolen identity resulting in a criminal record in the child’s name. The children left in foster cares are much more vulnerable targets as their social security numbers is shared among several people and organisations.

In a country like India the Child’s Information is collected by the thief and used as a bait in order to extract money from its parents. Sometimes the child is kidnapped and used by the offender for his own purposes. This may include Child Pornography in a strict sense.

Prevention:

  • Documents and records having the personal information of children should be kept safely in a locker or in a secure location.
  • Children should be educated about not sharing such important information with others.
  • If there is a credit report in the name of the child and if no credit is applied for then such account should be freezed.
  • Before throwing away any documents containing the personal information of the child, it should be shredded thoroughly.

Financial Identity Theft:

Rather than being a type of identity theft, financial identity theft is an outcome of identity theft which is detrimental to the victim. Financial identity theft occurs when a fraudster acquires economic benefits or financial gain in the victim’s name. The thief may commit a straightforward theft of the victim’s credit or debit card or he may use any sophisticated devices to obtain his personally identifiable information.

The thief gets such information by going through the trash and finding the pre-approved credit card offers or bank account and by posing as a bank employee. Once the thief gets hold of the victim’s personally identifiable information, he may apply for new credit cards, claim loans or even drain up the bank account of the victim by making charges pretending to be him or convincing the financial institution that he has the right to be added in that account.

He may write checks or transfer money from one account to another in the victim’s name. The thief could be someone who is a stranger or a person who is a friend or a family member of the victim who usually can lay hands on the personal information of the victim without his knowledge. The consequences of financial identity theft can last for years. The debts may pile up for the victim even though he was not liable for it and his credit history may be affected for a long time.

Prevention:

  • A locking mail box or a secure mail slot should be used to protect the new debit and credit cards and other financial information.
  • People should regularly monitor their credit reports and bank accounts.
  • Any unusual activity in the bank account should be immediately reported to the authorities.
  • People should be cautious while entering the pin or any other information in an ATM keypad.
  • Use secure passwords and pin and change them frequently.

Tax Identity Theft:

Tax identity theft is one of the major identity theft. Tax identity theft occurs when the thief uses the personally identifiable information of another person to steal his tax refunds. The fraudster may file a false tax return or claim tax benefits in the name of the victim. Such identity thieves will file a tax return before the victim does and gets refund cheques sent to the place that they prefer. There are instances where they file a fake income and file for even large refund.

This fraud works only if the returns have not been files by the legitimate tax payers and so the fraudsters file for returns as early as possible. The victim has no way of knowing that such fraud has been committed until he files for the tax return. When the victim files for tax return, the appropriate authority will send him a notice letter stating that his refund has already been returned. If the criminal obtains employment using the victim’s information, the income from such employment will also be included. So when the victim files for tax return, the authority may send him a notice asking him to state his whole income.

In a country like India the happening of a Tax Identity Theft could be curtailed to some extent as the laws as well as the filing of such returns are strictly looked upon by the tax imposing authorities and also the Central Government

Prevention:

  • Filing for taxes earlier will reduce the possibility of any fraud in filing tax return by the criminals.
  • The annual earnings of every individual should be properly scrutinized.
  • The tax records and personal records should be stored securely.
  • If a person receives any wages from employer under whom he has not worked, the complaint should be made immediately to the proper authority.
  • The credit should be periodically reviewed for any suspicious activity.

Identity Cloning and Concealment:

In every type of identity theft the thief wrongfully collects a person's identity in order to have some economic or personal gains. In this type the thief personifies himself as the victim and extracts what he requires through such personification. Such method is called as cloning. This can be done through online and offline methods. The thief creates a fake profile as that of the victim and uses the same to decrease the reputation of the person or to have some monetary gains.

This use of internet platforms for illegal purposes shall be controlled and comes under the ambit of Information Technology Act. Furthermore this cloning can also be done personally by way of fake passports, aadhaar cards, and other identity cards issued by the some authorities are prone to these type of threats. In a clear sense these tools are used by illegal immigrants in order to live in the country. The others are just doing this for their economic gains as said earlier. This offline method of cloning and concealment is controlled and comes under the ambit of Indian Penal Code as Fraud and other penal provisions.

These are few types of Identity Theft that is happening in and around the country and people face many more types of identity theft every now and then. The only way to curtail this problem is to be safe and keep the information safer.

Victimology:

It is pertinent to note that the impact, Identity theft creates on the person against whom the information is stolen depends on how such information is being used. It may be used by the thief in order to lower down the reputation of the person or to extract monetary gains. This extraction of monetary gains may also be called as economic offences. At times people who are victims of these offences get a mental trauma that makes them commit something more offensive to themselves or to others.

These victims shall have the burden of proof with them in order to prove that they are being the victims of such offense committed by the thief. As these offences are committed by fake profiles and with the victims profile it is difficult to find the person who could have committed such offense. So it is the duty of the people to safeguard their information in order to avoid such trauma.

Conclusion:
Like other forms of stealing identity theft leaves the victim poor and feeling terribly violated- George W. Bush

The concept of theft occurs only when equality fails or people’s greed towards others increases. The former condition lies down in the hands of the government and later with the people. It is very pertinent to note that the later condition shall be curtailed by people themselves only by their satisfaction.

These various types of Identity Theft is only the effect of lacunae in the Information Technology system and laws governing such thefts. The Indian laws governing theft i.e. the Indian Penal Code as well as Information Technology Act should be amended in order provider for stronger punishments and fulfilling the lacunae in the system. The primary motive of every person in order to prevent identity theft is to safeguard all their information from others as ‘Information is wealth’.

References:
  1. The Evolutional View Of The Types Of Identity Thefts And Online Frauds In The Era Of The Internet, Internet Journal of Criminology © (2011)
Written By: K.C.Trisha Sammrita and S.S.Sanjay Krishnan, B.Com; LLB (Hons) Sastra, Thirumalaisamudhram, Thanjavur   

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