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How to Counter Criminal Identity Theft

Last Updated: October 25, 2023
3 min read

Key points about: criminal identity theft

  1. Criminal identity theft is when a person is arrested for a crime and uses another person’s identifying information, which results in a criminal record in that person’s name.

  2. Logging into email or a bank account on public WiFi could leave your personal information vulnerable.

  3. If you’re the victim of criminal identity theft, file a report with the Federal Trade Commission.

Of all the different types of ID theft, criminal identity theft is the most serious. Though the name is a little misleading since all identity theft is a crime, the  California Attorney General’s Office defines criminal identity theft as “when someone cited or arrested for a crime uses another person’s name and identifying information, resulting in a criminal record being created in that person’s name.” In other words, criminal identity theft is when someone commits a crime and pretends to be you. This can mean that you must pay the consequences for someone else’s illegal actions.

How criminal identity theft can happen

As with many types of identity theft, criminal identity theft begins when a fraudster obtains or forges your Social Security number, driver’s license, passport, or another key piece of identification. But the difference is that rather than using it to open a credit card or drain your bank account, criminal identity thieves use your information as their get-out-of-jail-free card.

Criminal identity theft often happens well before the victim is even aware that their identity has been stolen. For instance, let’s say an identity thief gets pulled over for speeding and presents a forged copy of your driver’s license. More likely than not, that person will not actually pay the ticket. It’s unlikely law enforcement will actively pursue such a small offense, but if left unresolved, it may lead to a bench warrant. This could mean that if you’re pulled over for a routine moving violation, a small infraction could mean big trouble.

But criminal ID theft can have far greater consequences than delinquent speeding tickets. If a scammer commits a more serious crime, gives your name and information to the police, then fails to appear in court, it may result in an arrest warrant issued in your name. Not only could this result in jail time for a crime you didn’t commit, but it may also result in significant financial and personal hardships, not to mention the long process of clearing your name. 

The hidden cost of free WiFi

One often-overlooked way identity thieves may access your personal information is through unsecured WiFi networks. Public WiFi is a broad term for open wireless networks found in cafes, malls, restaurants, hotels, airports, and other places where people generally want to access the internet. Largely seen as a ubiquitous convenience, few think twice before connecting. But these open networks may pose a risk to users.

Because they’re built for convenience and not for security, public WiFi networks are rarely encrypted, and as a result, they’re susceptible to cybercriminal attacks. As the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) defines it, “Encryption scrambles the information you send over the internet into a code so it’s not accessible to others.” Since information on public WiFi is not encrypted, it’s easier for others to intercept and exploit that information.

This might not matter much if you’re just scanning the day’s headlines. But if you’re logging into your bank account, or even onto your email, this means anyone on the network may be able to access your passwords and with them, all of your personal identifying information.

What to do about criminal identity theft?

If you find out that you have become a victim of criminal identity theft, the first thing you should do is file a report with the FTC and work with the arresting agency directly to start the process of expunging your record.  

Did you know?

In the worst-case scenario that you’ve been the victim of criminal identity theft, it’s better to find out before the authorities arrest you under false charges. Discover Identity Theft Protection includes: criminal court alerts–when your name appears in a federal, state, or municipal record that we monitor for criminal arrest, court booking, and more; three bureau credit alerts–when key changes are reported to your credit file1; and much more.

If we should find something, our 100% U.S.-based Fraud Resolution Specialists are available to guide you to help clear your name. Plus, get up to $1MM identity theft insurance–for legal expenses, reimbursement of stolen funds, lost wages, and more covered expenses.2 For just $15 per month, Discover Identity Theft Protection helps you to safeguard your good name.

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  1. Key changes include: New accounts, credit inquiries, address changes, potentially negative information such as delinquencies, and public records.

  2. Identity Theft Protection: Identity Theft Insurance underwritten by insurance company subsidiaries or affiliates of American International Group, Inc. The description herein is a summary and intended for informational purposes only and does not include all terms, conditions, and exclusions of the policies described. Please refer to the actual policies for terms, conditions, and exclusions of coverage. Coverage may not be available in all jurisdictions.

    This product can only be agreed upon, purchased and delivered online. It is optional and voluntary.

  • Legal Disclaimer: This site is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for professional advice. The material on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice and does not indicate the availability of any Discover product or service. It does not guarantee that Discover offers or endorses a product or service. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.