Categories of Identity Theft

Identity theft generally falls under two broad categories: self-revealing crimes and non-self revealing crimes.

With a self-revealing crime, the perpetrator’s intent is to maintain the scam as long as it takes the milk the victim, so there’s a window of time in which the crime takes place. Credit card companies have become so responsive to potential credit card theft that the window of opportunity for misusing a stolen card may be on the order of hours. If suspicion is not aroused on the part of the credit agency, the victim may not realize they’ve been hit until a month later when they receive a statement revealing that they have unknowingly bought $3,000 worth of cat toys.

With non-self-revealing crimes the perpetrator tries to maintain the scam indefinitely—they don’t want anyone to find out what they are doing. In fact, the victim may never find out. In some very benign situations, a perpetrator may assume someone’s identity in order to qualify for a loan when their own credit wouldn’t permit it, with every intent to pay back the loan in full. In other cases, the victim may be deceased (and hence, we presume, wouldn’t know). In such cases the motivation of the perpetrator may range from a desire to continue cashing the deceased government checks to a desire to hide from authorities (sort of a do-it-yourself witness protection program for criminals).

We can further refine identity theft into four forms: financial identity theft, criminal identity theft, identity cloning, and business/commercial identity theft. We’ll briefly address each of these.

Financial identity theft involves the use of someone else’s personal information to obtain goods and services. This may include credit card fraud, line of credit fraud, and loan/mortgage fraud.

In 2003, the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization, conducted a study using a sample of individuals who had contacted that organization regarding an identity theft crime during the previous 2 years. The results indicated that the most common type of consumer identity theft encountered among the subjects was financial (72.7%). Among those who experienced financial identity theft, the most common uses of their personal information were to: open new credit account(s) (73%); purchase new cellular phone service (37%); make charges on an existing credit card account(s) (27%); and make charges over the Internet for goods/services (23%).3


Financial motivations are preeminent in identity theft, and access to credit is the most common thing stolen.

The FTC’s report notes that credit card fraud was the most common form of identity theft in 2002, accounting for 42 percent of the complaints it received that year. Second at 22 percent is phone or utility fraud, followed by bank fraud at 17 percent. … Of those who knew how the identity theft or fraud was committed: 34% said someone obtained their credit card information, forged a credit card in their name and used it to make purchases.4


Criminal identity theft includes the use of false identification to avoid arrest or incarceration. It can also be connected to illegal immigration, terrorism, espionage, and blackmail.

Identity cloning involves the use of someone else’s information to assume control of their daily life functions. This includes tampering with bills, mail, financial affairs, and civil affairs.

Business or commercial identity theft involves the illegal use of a business name and other information in order to obtain credit or perform some other financial transaction.


3 Robert O. Weagley and Pamela S. Norum, “College Students, Internet Use, and Protection from Online Identity Theft,” Journal of Educational Technology Systems 35, no. 1 (2006): 45-59.
4 Nikki Swartz, “Identity Theft Victims Skyrocket, Surveys Say,” Information Management Journal 37, no. 6 (2003): 17.

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