What is Identity Theft?

Identity theft is a new twist on the age-old crimes of fraud, theft and impersonation.

Identity theft has been defined as the collection, possession and trafficking of personal information. Identity fraud has been defined as the subsequent use of personal information without the person’s knowledge or consent, to commit crimes such as fraud, theft or forgery.

Isn’t Identity Theft Illegal?

Impersonation and forgery are against the law today, so some types of activities that involve identity fraud are illegal.
But the collection, possession and trafficking of identity information is not currently against the law.

New laws are needed to combat this crime and work has been done by the Canadian government to amend the Criminal Code in the area of identity theft.  There was new legislation introduced in 2007, but has not yet been passed into law.

Identity Theft is Increasing

In the U.S., according to one survey done in 2008, after a four year trend of decreasing fraud,  a record 9.9 million adult Americans—roughly one in 23—were victims of identity theft.

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, which tracks Canadian statistics, received over 11,000 complaints of identity theft, amounting to over $9 million in losses.

According to the results of a survey done in 2008, less than 20% of of identity fraud incidences were reported to police, Phonebusters or other agencies.

The same survey reported that 6.5% of Canadian adults, or almost 1.7 million people, were the victim of some kind of identity fraud in the previous year and over 20 million hours and more than $150 million was spent by victims to resolve problems caused by the frauds. See Sproule and Archer above. Their survey was part of Defining and Measuring Identity Theft in Canada, a research project of the Ontario Research Network for Electronic Commerce (ORNEC), to determine the nature and extent of identity theft and fraud in Canada.

Consumer concerns and behaviour were also examined. ORNEC also works on conceptualizing and defining identity theft and increasing our understanding of the purposes and goals of identity thieves.

Why is Organized Crime Involved in Identity Theft?

According to the 2008 Annual Report on Organized Crime, issued by the Criminal Intelligence Service Canada, identity theft and identity fraud is highly profitable for organized crime groups because there is a relatively low risk of being caught and prosecuted. This low risk of prosecution may explain in part why these crimes are increasing.

Organized crime groups use identity theft to help them carry out other crimes, for financial gain and to avoid detection and prosecution by police.  Criminals can build stolen or fake identities by starting with one or two pieces of personal information. For example, they take a person’s name and birth date, and use that to apply for fraudulent bank accounts, credit cards, and loan applications. Then they use this fraudulent financial file to make more applications for other identity documents like driver’s licences or social insurance numbers. Then they have created a whole fake identity, which they can use for other crimes.

What Happens to the Victims of Identity Theft?

There are often long-term consequences for the victims of identity theft and identity fraud. Large debt can be incurred in their name by the criminals, so the victims suffer damage to their credit rating and possibly their reputation. Although it is getting easier for victims to clear their names, it can still take a long time, and cost a lot of money. It can also cause a lot of emotional distress. Sometimes criminals use the identify theft victim’s identity when they are arrested for a crime, so the victim must ensure that they don’t have a criminal record attached to their name. Past victims face a bigger risk of re-victimization, which can be a financial and psychological burden.

Young people are the most vulnerable targets of identity thieves online. Some use online social networking sites (e.g. Facebook, MySpace) on a daily basis and are part of multiple online communities, where they post detailed personal profiles, sharing a vast amount of personal information. In 2007, the US Federal Trade Commission reported that a growing number of victims are under the age of 18, of which half are under the age of six. Child identity theft can represent a new target group as this type of crime can be undetected for a long period of time. 
Source: 2008 Annual Report on Organized Crime, Criminal Intelligence Service Canada

What Types of Information Can be Used for Identity Theft?

The types of personal information that can be used as a key to getting more information about you, to be used to impersonate you, steal from you or commit other crimes include:

  1. Date of birth;
  2. Home and work addresses and phone numbers;
  3. Job titles and descriptions;
  4. Mother’s maiden name;
  5. Pre-approved credit applications;
  6. Utility, phone and other bills; bank statements;
  7. Credit card numbers;
  8. Social Insurance and Health Card Numbers and passports;
  9. Credit card receipts;
  10. Financial records and tax returns.

How Can You Protect Yourself from Identity Theft?

There are several ways you can minimize your risk of becoming a victim of this type of fraud.

In your wallet:

  1. Sign credit cards immediately upon receipt;
  2. Carry only the identification and credit cards you need;
  3. Keep non-essential cards in a safe place – not in your wallet;
  4. Be careful with your SIN –  memorize it rather than carry the card around;
  5. Take a photocopy of the contents of your wallet and keep it in a very safe place such as a safety deposit box or a locked safe.

For your accounts:

  1. Choose passwords that are difficult for other to guess and change them often;
  2. Don’t give out your personal information to callers or by email, unless you made the call or sent the email yourself and know that the line is secure;
  3. Cover your hand when you key in your PIN;
  4. Put passwords on as many of your accounts as possible.


  1. Use technologies that enhance your security and privacy when you are online such as digital signatures, data encryption, and privacy or anonymizing settings;
  2. Use security programs and services on your personal computer and update them regularly;
  3. Use special software to wipe your hard drive clean before you throw it away – “deleted” information is still held in the computer’s memory;
  4. Be careful about what you post on social networking sites.  Consider using different usernames to make it harder for criminals, fraudsters and others to trace you and your interests from site to site.

As a consumer:

  1. When you`re asked for your personal information, satisfy yourself that it is actually needed, and its security will be protected;
  2. Carefully review monthly bills and be aware of monthly billing cycles.  Contact the companies if your bills fail to arrive or if you notice an unusual charge; and
  3. Check your credit rating annually and report any errors as soon as possible.