How Long Will a Convicted Identity Thief Spend in Jail?
If you're one of the 1.4 million people who reported identity theft to the feds last year, how much jail time should your thief receive? If you've been stuck in digital purgatory for months or even years trying to claw back your identity and restore your good name, you'd probably vote to lock that con artist up and throw away the key. Yet, that's rarely the outcome in most identity theft convictions.
Here is a headline victims love to read: "Hacker Gets Maximum Sentence." This headline, which appeared in mid-October 2021, involved a massive data theft that hit a medical center and its 65,000 employees. Many workers at the facility endured serious tax identity theft and other crimes after a 2014 data breach. Victims have finally seen some justice. But, unfortunately, the maximum sentence for aggravated identity theft can be as little as 24 months.
The thief stole the names, Social Security numbers, addresses and salary information of tens of thousands of this medical center employees, then sold that personal information on the dark web so that other criminals could further exploit his victims.
In total, the thief received a 7-year sentence that might be reduced for good behavior one day. Do victims feel that's an adequate penalty?
Total ID Theft Consequences
When the crime is total identity theft, a judge can lean toward the higher end of the scale to set jail time. A 'complete' or 'total' ID theft case means the crook obtains a driver's license, employment documents, utilities, health care information, and more in the victim's name.
You can imagine, some of these sentences heap more grief on the victims after their losses.
Take the case of a teacher. She endured total identity theft for over a decade after an immigrant invaded every corner of her life to steal her name and opportunities.
The teacher showed up in court for the sentencing to face the tormentor. The 32-year-old imposter received a sentence of only 18 months, paired with an agreement not to fight deportation after serving that time.
Why Sentences Vary
In another case, three additional defendants plead guilty to identity theft or other charges. Two were foreign nationals. The third was an enlisted Staff Sergeant. The crime was filing four bogus tax returns in an attempt to grab $56,000 in fake returns, which the thief never received.
Eventually, a judge sentenced the thief to 3 years of probation, which might not please the victims. Prosecutors who'd requested a harsher sentence were not happy. One factor in the light sentence was that the thief didn’t profit from his scams. The IRS detected and rejected the bogus filings.
The U.S. Attorney's Office prosecutes numerous identity theft cases. Here's how their office explains the leeway that judges receive in sentencing: "The law provides for a total sentence of 20 years in prison, a fine of $1,000,000, or both. Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the actual sentence imposed is based upon the seriousness of the offense and the prior criminal history, if any, of the defendant."
At times, it's tough to believe those maximum sentences ever apply after a conviction. Another victim experienced total identity theft. For over 20 years, a thief masqueraded as the victim. During those decades, the imposter was convicted as a sex offender, making it impossible for the victim to get a job. The thief's sentence was just a year and a day.
Sentencing is unpredictable. It's hard to state definitively that jail time works as an actual deterrent to hackers. While prosecutors hope publicizing long jail terms will stop some individuals, identity theft is considered a white-collar crime. Therefore, sentencing guidelines suggest less time in jail than violent offenders receive. Further, it's difficult to get firm numbers on the percentage of identity thieves ever caught.
Avoiding identity theft and the loss of personally identifiable information (PII) is a better outcome. If a thief grabs your PII, fast action can rein in the damages. The challenge is detecting exposure soon after a theft occurs.
IDShield can help. We monitor 34 different data elements for members, and we do it 24/7 so you don’t need to worry. Enjoy our service for 30 days at no charge, and see if you don't sleep better knowing IDShield has your back.
IDShield is a product of Pre-Paid Legal Services, Inc. d/b/a LegalShield (“LegalShield”). LegalShield provides access to identity theft protection and restoration services. IDShield plans are available at individual or family rates. For complete terms, coverage, and conditions, please see an identity theft plan. This is meant to provide general information and is not intended to provide legal or tax advice, render an opinion, or provide any specific recommendations.
Pre-Paid Legal Services, Inc. (“PPLSI”) provides access to legal services offered by a network of provider law firms to PPLSI members through membership-based participation. Neither PPLSI nor its officers, employees or sales associates directly or indirectly provide legal services, representation, or advice. The information available in this blog is meant to provide general information and is not intended to provide legal advice, render an opinion, or provide any specific recommendations. The blog post is not a substitute for competent legal counsel from a licensed professional lawyer in the state or province where your legal issues exist and the reader is strongly encouraged to seek legal counsel for your specific legal matter. Information contained in the blog may be provided by authors who could be a third-party paid contributor. All information by authors are accepted in good faith, however, PPLSI makes no representation or warranty of any kind, express or implied, regarding the accuracy, adequacy, validity, reliability, availability, or completeness of such information.