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Accused of identity theft: What you need to know

Identity theft is a harmful crime that steals one person's identity for the benefit of another party. For example, if you take your friend's identification and credit cards, use them, and return them without your friend finding out, you committed identity theft while using the stolen documents.

In most states, it's illegal to use another person's identifying information regardless of the type. For instance, if a Social Security Number, PIN number, person's credit history or other data is stolen and used for your own personal gain, that's fraud and identity theft.

What constitutes identify theft?

The crime occurs when you unlawfully access the information. It's possible to access it through governmental or financial entities, but it's also possible for identity theft to occur due to stolen credit cards, wallets and mail.

In 1998, Congress passed a law that made identity theft into a federal crime for the first time. Since then, it has been illegal to knowingly use another person's identity with the intent to commit a crime or perform an unlawful action. In 2004, another act was put into place that increased penalties for aggravated cases of identity theft. Those who commit these crimes could face an additional two years in prison or five years if the identity theft is linked to terrorism.

Did identify theft occur?

If you're unsure if your case actually involves identity theft, there are a few ways to know. First, if you have permission to use the identity or items in your possession, it's unlikely that an identity theft charge would hold. For example, if you take your mother's ID and credit card with her permission to purchase groceries, the store would be able to call and verify the use of those items. Even if the police were called, your mother could clear up the confusion. On the other hand, if you took the credit card and ID without permission, you would be committing identity theft and could be charged.

Your attorney can help you understand more about the charges against you and what you can do to defend yourself. Identity theft is a serious allegation, and you need to stand up for your rights.

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