What is the History of Identity Theft?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 October 2019
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Identity theft refers to unauthorized and illegal use of the personal information of another person, either in order to obtain money or other valuables through the use of the name, to steal money from the person, or to assume that person’s identity in a fuller way, including impersonation. Although several dictionaries list the origin of the term identity theft as being in the 1990s, suggesting that the history of identity theft is of fairly recent origins, the term shows up in the Palm Beach Post as early as 8 March 1986, and the series of events that led up to the article started as early as 1982. The case involved two men who were briefly college roommates, one of whom took over the other’s identity and used it as he joined the military, got arrested, and obtained a Social Security card, credit cards, and a driver’s license — making life incredibly difficult for his victim. However, the history of identity theft goes back at least as far as the sixteenth century, when Gascon peasant Martin Guerre’s identity was stolen by an imposter who took over his life until the real Martin returned.


With the advent of computers and the Internet, phishing and spoofing provided new ways for identity thieves to work, but old-school identity theft using information obtained in other ways — from trash, stolen or lost wallets, or acquaintance, for example — continue. One notable case in the history of identity theft that do not depend on computers include a 2008 case that involved a mother stealing the identity of her own daughter — living elsewhere at the time — in order to attend high school and become a cheerleader. Another notorious case in the history of identity theft is the well-received performances in Hong Kong in August 2000 of the so-called Moscow Philharmonic, which actually wasn’t the Moscow Philharmonic, which was performing in France, Portugal, and Spain at the time. The performers who went to Hong Kong were apparently from other, “lesser” Russian orchestras.

In the more recent history of identity theft. the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has identified it as the fastest growing crime in the United States, and the size of the thefts have also increased. For a number of years, the theft of 30,000 passwords by Philip Cummings, working at a help desk at Teledata Communications® in 2000–2001 was the largest case of identity theft. However, beginning in 2006, three conspirators stole over 130 million debit and credit card numbers from three corporations. As of 2010, this was the largest identity theft.


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Post 3

I think the history of identity theft goes even farther back than the sixteenth century. I say this based on the fact that some very old epics mention instances of identity theft. The Hindu epic Ramayana mentions it for instance.

Post 2

@bluedolphin-- I think those who engage in criminal identity cloning or theft do usually use fake IDs. Or if they can get the right information and credentials of the identity they're stealing, they may even have a real ID issued by a state.

I don't think that identity cloning, or pretending to be someone else, is as common as financial identity theft. Most fraudsters just want to be that person during online transactions to make purchases with the person's financial information. Not as many people take on the identity of someone else completely in day to day life. I'm not an expert on this topic though, it would be great if those more informed about this topic shared their opinions.

Do we have any experts or researchers here on the topic of identity theft?

Post 1

I didn't realize that identity theft goes all the way back to the sixteenth century. I though that it was a fairly recent phenomenon, thanks to the internet.

I don't really understand how people can pose as others in this day and age though, especially if they have to show a picture ID. Do they have fake IDs made then?

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