Since the massive expansion of the internet and social media over the past two decades, the news media has constantly warned people of the dangers of identity theft. Even though these types of white-collar crimes occurred long before the internet, it has made perpetrating this crime easier. While most people assume that identity theft is orchestrated by hooded hackers in their basements, the reality is that everyday people can commit this crime, and often by mistake.
Most people charged with identity crime didn’t even know they did anything wrong, but ended up on the wrong side of the law anyway. While defendants should always contact an experienced attorney to begin planning a defense strategy, everyone in California should be aware of seemingly innocent actions that can lead to an identity theft charge.
What Does “Identity Theft” Mean, Legally?
Identity theft is defined under California Penal Code 530.5 PC as the act of “willfully” obtaining another person’s “personal identifying information,” and using that “information for any unlawful purpose” without the consent of the owner, such as to acquire:
- Money or credit
- Real estate
- Medical information.
To convict you of identity theft, a district attorney must show that you acted willingly – meaning you did not make a mistake or act under duress – that you did not have the consent of the alleged victim, and that you used their information to acquire property or services. This can include both property owned by the victim, such as money from an ATM, and another party’s property, such as using the victim’s credit card to purchase products from a store.
This broad definition of identity theft means that it can cover several different scenarios, many of which are seemingly innocent. Here’s a few common ways people go wrong:
Believing a Victim Had Given Consent
In some cases, defendants believed they were acting honestly with the consent of their victims. This can include businesses that were provided with a client’s financial information or personal details to open an account, make purchases, or sell property. Sometimes, unauthorized charges come about due to a misreading of a contract, an email that got lost, or because the defendant pulled out of a contract early. Businesses should always follow proper procedures and clearly discuss these issues with clients, but a clerical error does not justify a criminal conviction.
Making a Mistake Post-Divorce
Divorce can be a long, stressful process, and there are numerous steps the spouses have to take when detangling a household. Most couples share insurance, bank accounts, retirement funds, and other financial services. If you did not clearly divide these accounts and discuss who owns what, you may still have access to their information. If you attempt to use your ex’s health insurance or credit, not realizing that they have sole ownership post-divorce, you could inadvertently “steal” their identity to acquire services, information, and credit. While you may have had no intention of misrepresenting yourself, an angry ex may not want to hear your side of the story and pursue charges against you.
Sharing Digital Devices
Nowadays, households often save personal information on their computers, tablets, and smartphones, such as with auto-fill software. This can include credit card information, billing addresses, and login details for online services. If roommates freely share their laptops or use the same network or accounts, they may make purchases or access personal information by accident. While sometimes this can mean innocently logging into a roommate’s Netflix account, it can also lead to mistakenly using their social security number or other personal information on important documents.
Accessing Public Computers
Just like in the above scenario, identity theft can occur by accident when two or more individuals use the same public computer. Libraries, hotels, and internet cafés all have public computers for users to log in and handle their individual affairs. If someone forgets to log out of an account or accidentally saves their information on the public network, it may be accessed by other people. While some individuals actively use these public networks to steal information and make illegal purchases, others due so by mistake, not realizing that they are logged into someone else’s account or making purchases with a saved credit card. It is always important to double-check the login details on a public computer to avoid inadvertently stealing someone else’s information.
Accused of Identity Theft? Call Law Office of Michael L. Guisti
White-collar crimes involve some of the most complex laws in California and our nation in general. Oftentimes, completely innocent individuals end up on the wrong side of these laws due to simple mistakes. When that occurs, it is important to bring your case before a skilled Orange County criminal defense attorney at Law Office of Michael L. Guisti. Our legal team can go over the details of your arrest, collect evidence in your defense, and explain your situation to a district attorney or judge. Call us at (714) 530-9690 or toll-free at (888) 478-8999 to learn how we can protect your future in a free consultation.