Wild, Wild Theft: Identity Crimes in the Digital Frontier

AuthorStephen V. Gies,Amanda Bobnis,Nicole Leeper Piquero,Alex R. Piquero,Brandn Green
Date01 July 2021
Published date01 July 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2021, Vol. 32(6) 592 –617
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403420949650
Wild, Wild Theft:
Identity Crimes in the
Digital Frontier
Stephen V. Gies1, Nicole Leeper Piquero2,
Alex R. Piquero2,3 , Brandn Green1,
and Amanda Bobnis1
Identity theft is a pervasive and expensive problem. Not only does the crime incur
a significant financial and mental cost on the victim, but also exhibits a financial
toll on the organizations that are swept up in the crime. Yet, while there is some
research on the offender part of the identity theft problem, much less research
has been devoted to identity theft victims and almost no research has examined
victim attempts at remediation. This article examines how the use of a nonprofit
victim service organization, the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), affects the
experiences of identity crime victims with respect to a variety of problems. Findings
reveal that victims incur many problems related to identity theft, that many problems
linger over time, and that some services are useful in helping them manage the crime’s
identity theft, victim assistance, financial crime
The digital age has given rise to a contemporary type of crime problem in which mod-
ern criminals take advantage of unsuspecting victims not through violence or the steal-
ing of valuable property but rather by thieving personally identifiable information
1Development Services Group, Inc., Bethesda, MD, USA
2University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, USA
3Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Corresponding Author:
Alex R. Piquero, Department of Sociology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL 33146, USA.
Email: axp1954@miami.edu
949650CJPXXX10.1177/0887403420949650Criminal Justice Policy ReviewGies et al.
Gies et al. 593
(PII),1 commonly referred to as identity theft. Believed to have been first coined in the
1960s for scams in which a perpetrator would fraudulently obtain the PII of a victim
via the telephone (W. R. Miller, 2012), identity theft is not exactly a new problem, but
one that has evolved with technology. Identity theft victimization is one of the most
feared and fastest growing crime problems, in part because of the freedoms provided
to and demanded by consumers in the digital world (Piquero et al., 2011). Furthermore,
an increase in globalization and a lack of borders provide an environment ripe for
criminals to engage in these crimes with a sense of impunity, and thus create unprec-
edented challenges for law enforcement to both identify and apprehend those engaging
in these crimes (Finklea, 2014).
In contrast to the expanding opportunities for offenders, the increasing population
of victims of identity crimes is being left with little recourse to redress the wrongs
committed against them. This article first defines two similar yet distinct identity-
based crimes and reviews their prevalence in the United States, then investigates the
consequences of identity-based crimes on individuals, what is currently being done to
remedy these harms, and what needs to change to better help victims. In this regard,
our work is among the few in this area of research that focuses on victim’s conse-
quences of identity theft and more importantly the types of victim services (and expe-
riences) provided to identity theft victims (Green et al., 2020).
Understanding Identity-Based Crime
Understanding Victimization in Identity-Based Crimes
Identity-based crimes generally fall into one of two categories: identity theft or
identity fraud. Although these two terms have been conceptualized in several dif-
ferent ways and are often used interchangeably (Golladay & Holtfreter, 2017),
they bear specific differences. Identity theft involves the “unlawful taking” of
another person’s PII (Golladay & Holtfreter, 2017; Pascual et al., 2018). Identity
fraud, by contrast, is the unauthorized use of another person’s PII (Golladay &
Holtfreter, 2017; Pascual et al., 2018). As such, while the two crimes are related,
they are independent of each other, where the thieving of PII is an antecedent to
the crime of fraud. In other words, identity theft is a facilitating crime that can
stimulate other crimes, such as financial, criminal, medical, and government
fraud,2 with financial fraud being the most common type (Identity Theft Resource
Center [ITRC], 2017).
Prevalence of Identity-Based Crimes
The digital age allows more freedom for consumers to do almost everything on their
own terms—to open new financial accounts, to hail a car through ride-share services,
to share vacation photos instantly on social media sites, and to send highly confidential
information by email. The dark side of these conveniences is that as people become
increasingly connected across networks, they exponentially expand the footprints of

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