Why Identity Theft is The Fastest Growing Crime Worldwide


Identity theft can be understood, at least initially, as a set of practices for stealing someone’s personal information. This is usually done for the sake of receiving profit from a third party, which is a practice known as “financial identity theft”; other forms include “criminal identity theft,” where one provides law enforcement agents with someone else’s information, and “identity cloning,” where one adopts someone else’s identity to begin a new life or become a virtual doppelgänger of the victim. For the purposes of this article, the term identity theft will be used primarily to indicate financial identity theft, which is its most widely publicized form. Such identity-theft practices can include dumpster diving for personal information; stealing laptop computerswallets, or physical files; hacking into computer databases; planting “Trojan horse” or keystroke-tracking programs on personal computers (which will then “phone home” to send information back over the Internet); “skimming” credit card or ATM information with magnetic strip readers; “phishing” for valuable information through e-mail solicitations that appear to come from legitimate sources; “pharming” information by redirecting Internet traffic to illegitimate sites that appear credible and then asking users to enter or “update” credit card numbers, passwords, or other identifiers; and so on.
Identity theft computer hacking fraud investigation detectives mumbaiBeyond these practices, identity theft must also be understood as a “moral panic” and as a powerful myth that enrolls individuals, whether victims, criminals, state agents, or industry employees, into new social relations and forms of life. Moral panics are widespread—but largely spurious—beliefs in threats to the social order posed by dangerous groups, such as identity-theft perpetrators. The media act as “moral entrepreneurs” that foster fear in the public of its vulnerability to identity-theft attack by online hackers capturing credit card information, drug users sifting through one’s trash, or scam artists calling to request sensitive personal information. By referring to identity theft as a “myth,” I do not mean to deny its occurrence or experiences of it. Instead, I am calling attention to the fact of its social construction and its symbolic force to organize social life and contribute to security cultures. Identity theft is said to be the “fastest growing crime in India,” and while reported cases are growing rapidly, the rate of those arrested for it is simultaneously decreasing. Fear of identity theft is inculcated by the media, police agencies, banking and credit industries, and personal stories of friends, relatives, or neighbors who have experienced the taxing ordeal of trying to restore their identity documents or their good credit. Simon Cole and Henry Pontell relate:

The true damage and real victimization lies in the sense of personal violation, psychological trauma, possible medical care, family issues, and other ill effects, which of course include the time and expense involved in trying to restore one’s financial identity. . . . Identity theft is thus analogous to the theft of a key. The key itself is not particularly valuable, but the theft engenders insecurity disproportionate to the value of the key, which entails further costs (i.e., changing the locks).

Because fear of being a victim of identity theft far outstrips its actual occurrence, and because extreme actions are taken to mitigate it, it can properly be called a moral panic. This conclusion is supported by the fact that most credit agencies and retailers currently cover expenses associated with fraudulent purchases; thus, the concern felt by individuals is out of proportion to the risk they face.

Identity theft also represents an ongoing shift in the way people and institutions perceive individual “selves.” Brought about in large part by the proliferation of networked information infrastructures, identities are increasingly constructed through the selective concatenation of disparate, external representations of personal information, rather than being perceived as a unified, coherent cores residing within people. Mark Poster explains:

The practice of identity theft is conditional on the heterogeneity of identity, the inextricable mixing of consciousness with information machines, the dispersal of the self across the spaces of culture, its fragmentation into bits and bytes, the nonidentical identity or better identities that link machines with human bodies in new configurations or assemblages, the suturing or coupling of pieces of information in disjunctive time and scattered spaces.

Poster pinpoints a phase shift in cultural perceptions and valuations of identity as fragmented data, the likes of which spark new struggles for control. In other words, the cultural externalization and circulation of identity—as data— afford its theft.

Government institutions and the media have played a significant role in catalyzing this new orientation to the self. With the passage of the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998, the U.S. government codified a disparate set of practices into a new crime category, which could then be transformed by the media into a moral panic. (In this respect, identity theft carves out a unique development trajectory because most moral panics move in the opposite direction: from media coverage to government action. This law brought the crime to life in the public imaginary, so to speak, whereas prior to this the media and general public had largely ignored such crimes.)

Furthermore, many crimes that were previously classified as “fraud” were absorbed into—or colonized by—the new crime category of “identity theft,” especially for theft of individual data with information technologies. The label of “fastest growing crime,” therefore, is itself a misnomer that has become a social fact, generating further concern.

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Author Bio

Amit Sen, a commercial pilot by training, has over 15 years experience in the space of corporate investigations, handling Copyright & Trademark infringement cases, Pre – employment verifications, Industrial Espionage investigations, Asset & Net – Worth assessment assignments and vendor / supplier verification cases, amongst others. Co-founder of Alliance One Detectives – the best private investigation detectives Mumbai, Amit has successfully completed assignments in a wide range of sectors, including the machine tools industry, pharmaceutical industry, hospitality sector, specialized equipment (Oil & natural gas sector, aviation industry etc.), telecom industry & the IT & ITes sectors. These cases have all involved both offline and online investigations.

Article edited and co-written by Atin Dasgupta who is the co-founder and marketing head of Alliance One. Read more about Atin here.

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