Identity Theft

What Does Identity Theft Mean?

Identity theft is the unauthorized collection of personal information and its subsequent use for criminal reasons such as to open credit cards and bank accounts, redirect mail, set up cellphone service, rent vehicles and even get a job. These actions can mean severe consequences for the victim, who will be left with bills, charges and a damaged credit score.


There are many ways in which an individual’s identity can be stolen, but people may be particularly vulnerable to this crime online, where savvy criminals can gain access to personal information through a number of avenues. According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, approximately nine million Americans have their identities stolen each year. This theft is increasingly being perpetrated electronically.

Techopedia Explains Identity Theft

Identity thieves have a number of avenues for stealing personal information via electronic means. These include:

  • Retrieving stored data from discarded electronic equipment such as PCs, cellphones and USB memory sticks
  • Stealing personal information using malware such as keystroke logging or spyware
  • Hacking computer systems and databases to gain unauthorized access to large amounts of personal data
  • Phishing, or impersonating trusted organizations (such as the IRS, a bank or large retailer) via email or SMS messages and prompting users to enter personal financial information
  • Compromising weak login passwords (often through calculated guesswork) to gain access to a user’s online accounts
  • Using social networking sites to attain enough personal details to guess email passwords or impersonate the victim in other ways online
  • Diverting victims’ emails to attain personal information such as bank and credit card statements, or to prevent the victim from discovering that new accounts have been opened in his or her name

There are some steps consumers can take to protect their identities, including ensuring that any transactions they make online use secure data encryption, limiting the amount of personal information they share online, remaining alert to phishing scams and keeping a close eye on their banking and credit card statements.


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Margaret Rouse
Technology Expert

Margaret is an award-winning technical writer and teacher known for her ability to explain complex technical subjects to a non-technical business audience. Over the past twenty years, her IT definitions have been published by Que in an encyclopedia of technology terms and cited in articles by the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, ZDNet, PC Magazine, and Discovery Magazine. She joined Techopedia in 2011. Margaret's idea of a fun day is helping IT and business professionals learn to speak each other’s highly specialized languages.