The History of Identity Theft

Identity Theft is Not New

Computers and automated credit checking have made identity theft easy and lucrative for amateur and professional criminals, leading to an escalating number of frauds, but the concept and crime of identity theft have existed for centuries. The Old Testament book of Genesis tells in the 25th chapter the story of Jacob impersonating his brother to receive his father’s blessing. The biblical warning against bearing false witness involves lying for personal gain, which makes it closer in nature to identity theft than lying. Kings, pharaohs, and religious leaders have assumed false identities for personal gain throughout history.

Physical Crimes and Identity Theft

Historically, identity thefts usually involved physical crimes, which often required killing the victim in order to take their place. Once the criminal disposed of the corpse, he or she assumed the identity of the victim to access their money, lifestyle, identity, power, or influence over other people. Criminals often needed to hide from the police or their personal enemies, so they pretended to be someone else for personal safety.

Criminals faced greater difficulties trying to assume a new identity in the past, because people knew their neighbors and even their banks and merchants. However, foreign travel offered opportunities for identity theft. Ocean travel made a perfect place to make the switch — criminals could throw the body overboard and assume the victim’s identity among strangers who never suspected.

All identity thefts did not involve physical violence. Sometimes, people assumed the identities of people already dead to escape the reach of their enemies, abusive spouses, or creditors. Political history offers many examples of voter fraud, where zealous campaign workers registered names from local cemeteries to vote in local and national elections. Insurance fraud involved buying policies for people who had died and filing death-benefit claims.

Telephone Scams

The increase in telephone use changed the way criminals operated, creating new opportunities for criminal fraud that did not require killing the victim. Thieves would call their targets claiming they had won a prize. In order to ship the gift, the telephone caller needed to confirm the winners’ personal information. Unsuspecting people willingly supplied important personal data, but never received any prize. The victims might, however, receive bills for credit or services they never authorized. The prize offer technique worked so well that police have used it in sting operations to get criminal fugitives to come directly to locations where police officers promptly arrest them.

Talking Trash

Dumpster diving involves searching through trash for bills, phone records, confidential information, and other personal and business data, which criminals then use to access bank accounts, impersonate people to get credit, or sell to business competitors. During the 1980s, this practice enjoyed explosive growth, while the general public remained unaware of the danger. When people finally caught on to the scam, they began buying paper shredders for their homes and businesses to stop the thefts of their personal information.

Identity Theft in Books and Films

Identity theft has been portrayed in numerous books and films:

The Talented Mr. Ripley

In 1955, Patricia Highsmith published a psychological thriller that made the criminal the hero of the story, The Talented Mr. Ripley, which was a daring and revolutionary concept at the time. An influential shipping magnate hires Ripley, a likeable scam artist, to travel to Italy to persuade his errant son to return home. Ripley travels to Italy and becomes close friends with the young man. The friends quarrel eventually, and Ripley kills the rich heir, assuming his identity and lifestyle. The book proved enormously successful, spawning many sequels, eventually becoming a popular movie.

Dead Ringer

The classic 1964 film Dead Ringer starred Bette Davis who played both roles of identical twins. When younger, both women wanted to marry a rich man. One sister pretends to be pregnant to lure the man away from her sister. Years later, the rich man dies, and the jilted woman discovers that her sister had lied about the pregnancy, so she kills her and assumes her identity to enjoy the wealth she had been denied all those years. Unfortunately, in a capricious twist of fate, it turns out that the dead sister had killed her husband, and the Bette Davis character gets convicted of a murder she did not commit.

The Incredible Rise in Identity Fraud

Criminals have committed some form of identity fraud since the dawn of recorded history. The impersonal nature of computers and easy availability of credit have created conditions for the crime to grow explosively. Consumers should always exercise caution to avoid the tremendous personal problems identity theft causes. Checking credit scores frequently offers one important tool to identify possible identify fraud.