Identity Theft Research Review: Law Enforcement Issues and Response

Since passage of the 1998 Federal identity theft law and subsequent legislation, [1] (See Identity Theft Legislation), much attention has been given to police response to victims. The 1998 law gave prime responsibility to the Federal Trade Commission to assist consumers who have been victimized. Legislation requiring credit reporting agencies to respond quickly to correct victims' records will likely increase the number of reports to police, since affidavits filed by victims with credit agencies require a police report.

Two issues need to be researched regarding police response to identity theft:

  • Crime incident reporting. Information concerning identity theft lies in many different places. It may be a prime or facilitating motive in such traditional crimes as robbery, pick-pocketing, theft from cars, burglary, etc. Do police crime incident reporting systems have sufficient flexibility to collect such information, and if so, are line officers instructed to record it?

  • Flexibility of information systems. Does the crime incident database structure used by the police department allow a crime analyst to check across many different crime types or incidents to pick up on any identity-theft-related issues or patterns?

What did the researchers find?

No research has been conducted on the effectiveness of police response to victim needs. Evidence available is mostly anecdotal, either collected by various interests or victim testimony to congressional committees.

Despite the lack of research results on police awareness of identity theft, the researchers found many recommendations for police response to alleviate the harm done to victims, chiefly:

  • Quick police response mitigates harm.
  • Education through community outreach (such as a Web site) may help victims know where to turn and reduce their suffering.
  • Effective communication is needed—the FTC reports that the most common complaint is that the police "just don't care." In responding to the victim's request for a report or an investigation, police are urged to "adopt the victim as a partner."
  • A crisis response plan that will reduce the harm of a major theft of an agency or business's records is essential in minimizing the damage. The researchers ask, however, "is it the responsibility of law enforcement … to ensure that businesses and agencies have such a response plan?"

Aside from providing anonymity, identity theft offers many offenders the advantage of physical distance, a serious problem for both victims and authorities attempting to bring offenders to justice. Jurisdictional issues complicate the reporting, investigation, and prosecution of identity theft cases, as well as the creation and effectiveness of related legislation.

Identity theft is often wrapped up in other offenses that may involve intricate components. Examples of difficulties law enforcement and prosecutors face are:

  • Offenders' identities may be difficult to ascertain; an offender may use several identities or aliases, which can confuse investigations.
  • A single piece of information may be obtained from several different sources, which is time consuming and difficult for investigators to track.
  • Offenders may commit crimes using a victim's identity, causing the victim to be arrested. One study reported that "on average, law officers surmised that only 11 percent of identity theft cases received by their departments are solved." [2]

Overall, the ability to link information in identity theft investigations is critical, and more work should be done to obtain information-sharing agreements among relevant agencies and jurisdictions.


[1] Fair Credit Reporting Act, section 609(e). 2003 amendments to this Act make it easier for police to obtain financial records of a victim without a subpoena, so long as they have the victim's consent.

[2] Gayer, J., "Policing Privacy: Law Enforcement's Response to Identity Theft," California: CALPIRG Education Fund, 2003. Exit Notice

Date Created: June 7, 2010