Originally published in CNet, 14 April 2005
Identity theft is the new crime of the information age. A criminal collects enough personal data on someone to impersonate a victim to banks, credit card companies, and other financial institutions. Then he racks up debt in the person's name, collects the cash, and disappears. The victim is left holding the bag. While some of the losses are absorbed by financial institutions—credit card companies in particular—the credit-rating damage is borne by the victim. It can take years for the victim to clear his name.
Unfortunately, the solutions being proposed in Congress won't help. To see why, we need to start with the basics. The very term "identity theft" is an oxymoron. Identity is not a possession that can be acquired or lost; it's not a thing at all. Someone's identity is the one thing about a person that cannot be stolen.
The real crime here is fraud; more specifically, impersonation leading to fraud. Impersonation is an ancient crime, but the rise of information-based credentials gives it a modern spin. A criminal impersonates a victim online and steals money from his account. He impersonates a victim in order to deceive financial institutions into granting credit to the criminal in the victim's name. He impersonates a victim to the Post Office and gets the victim's address changed. He impersonates a victim in order to fool the police into arresting the wrong man. No one's identity ...