Identity theft, also known as identity fraud, is a crime in which an imposter obtains key pieces of personally identifiable information (PII), such as Social Security or driver’s license numbers, in order to impersonate someone else.

The information can be used to obtain credit, merchandise and services in the name of the victim or to provide the thief with false credentials. In addition to running up debt, in rare cases, an imposter might provide false identification to police, creating a criminal record or leaving outstanding arrest warrants for the person whose identity has been stolen.

Types and examples of identity theft

Identity theft is categorized two ways: true name and account takeover. True-name identity theft means the thief uses personal information to open new accounts. The thief might open a new credit card account, establish cellular phone service or open a new checking account in order to obtain blank checks.

Account-takeover identity theft means the imposter uses personal information to gain access to the person’s existing accounts. Typically, the thief will change the mailing address on an account and run up a huge bill before the person whose identity has been stolen realizes there is a problem. The internet has made it easier for identity thieves to use the information they’ve stolen because transactions can be made without any personal interaction.

There are many different examples of identity theft, including the following:

Financial identity theft. This is the most common type of identity theft. Financial identity theft exploits seek economic benefits by using a stolen identity.

Tax-related identity theft. In this type of exploit, the criminal files a false tax return with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) using a stolen Social Security number.

Medical identity theft. In this type of identity theft, the thief steals information, including health insurance member numbers, to receive medical services. The victim’s health insurance provider may get the fraudulent bills, which will be reflected in the victim’s account as services he received.

Criminal identity theft. In this example, a person under arrest gives stolen identity information to the police. Criminals sometimes back this up with a fake ID or state-issued documents containing stolen credentials. If this type of exploit is successful, the victim is charged instead of the thief.

Child identity theft. In this exploit, a child’s Social Security number is misused to apply for government benefits, opening bank accounts and other services. Children’s information is often sought after by criminals because the damage may go unnoticed for a long time.

Senior identity theft. This type of exploit targets people over the age of 60. Because senior citizens are often identity theft targets, it is especially important for this segment of the population to stay on top of the evolving methods thieves use to steal information.

Identity cloning for concealment. In this type of exploit, a thief impersonates someone else in order to hide from law enforcement or creditors. Because this type isn’t explicitly financially motivated, it’s harder to track, and there often isn’t a paper trail for law enforcement to follow.

Synthetic identity theft. In this type of exploit, a thief partially or completely fabricates an identity by combining different pieces of PII from different sources. For example, the thief may combine one stolen Social Security number with an unrelated birth date. Usually, this type of theft is difficult to track because the activities of the thief are recorded files that do not belong to a real person.