What is the History of Identity Theft?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

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.

Identity theft occurs when a person's identity is assumed by someone else.
Identity theft occurs when a person's identity is assumed by someone else.

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.

Computer viruses can digitally steal identity information.
Computer viruses can digitally steal identity information.

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.

Shopping online from unsecured sites can lead to identity theft.
Shopping online from unsecured sites can lead to identity theft.
Some people steal a person's identity by sifting important documents out of the trash.
Some people steal a person's identity by sifting important documents out of the trash.
Identity theft can occur at retailers if a person's PIN is stolen.
Identity theft can occur at retailers if a person's PIN is stolen.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments

ysmina

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.

stoneMason

@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?

bluedolphin

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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