How to Protect Yourself From Criminal Identity Theft Before You Wind Up in Jail

Criminal identity theft is a rare but serious form of fraud that could land you, the victim, in jail unless you know what to do before and after it happens.
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You may not know this, but there are a variety of types of identity theft and there are more uses for your identity than just financial fraud. If a fraudster is entangled with law enforcement, they could engage in criminal identity theft by using your identity instead of theirs for the criminal record, landing you in a lot of trouble.

Whether through malware, mail theft, or even a suspicious text from an unrecognized phone number, scammers are always trying to access our personal information. If you know the steps to take (and which identity theft protection to get), you can avoid becoming a victim or at least be able to clear your name even after an arrest warrant is issued.

In this article
What is criminal identity theft?
How do criminals steal your identity?
What are the red flags of criminal identity theft?
What to do if you’re a victim of criminal identity theft
Tips to protect yourself from identity theft
Criminal identity theft FAQs
Bottom line

What is criminal identity theft?

You may be wondering how identity theft differs from criminal identity theft. It’s a little confusing because all identity theft is illegal. Criminal identity theft occurs when someone is arrested and uses a fake name and information. That creates a criminal record for the wrong person, which could be devastating if you’re the one on the receiving end of the fraud.

This could result in serious consequences for the victim of the fraud ranging anywhere from trouble with law enforcement agencies to an inability to get a job. Not to mention, having a criminal record could make the punishment for any subsequent crimes more severe.

Think about if you’ve gotten pulled over for speeding and you know it’s your first offense. You’re going to try to talk your way into leniency, but the officer sees a record for you. Now you’re not only getting a ticket, but depending on the prior crime, you could be heading to jail.

How do criminals steal your identity?

There are so many ways to have your identity stolen. In the days before the internet, identity theft was mostly manual through the theft of wallets, financial records, medical records, mail, or other personal information that was written down. Today, there are accurate and complete records of all of us online, whether we want them there or not.

While the old methods are still valid, the most common types of theft are data breaches, phishing scams, and purchasing information from data brokers. This is why stopping online trackers and working to delete our info from data brokers is such a serious thing that many people don’t think of normally.

Ways data can be stolen:

  • Theft of wallets and purses for driver’s licenses, credit & debit cards, and other identifying info
  • Mail theft for credit card pre-approvals, tax info, medical records, other important documents
  • Filling out change-of-address forms to forward mail
  • Purchasing data from data brokers, dark web breach sites, or an individual with access to your information
  • Personnel records from employers
  • “Skim” information from an ATM or gas station with an electronic data theft device that’s hard to detect
  • Stealing information from people using unsecured public Wi-Fi or inputting personal info on unsecured websites
  • Data breaches
  • Phishing via phony emails, text messages, and websites that are designed to steal your personal information
  • Posing as a home buyer at open houses and rummaging through unsecured drawers

Never give any identifying information to anyone over a call, email, or text you didn’t initiate. And if you did initiate the contact, make sure you got the information from a verified source. Often, when you do your own research, you stumble across a scam disguised as legitimate information.

What are the red flags of criminal identity theft?

You may be lucky and never end up the victim of identity theft. Or you may be one of the unfortunate few who end up in this situation fighting criminal identity fraud. Hopefully, you’re the former. But there likely are warning signs if you’re the latter, which may help you catch it early and restore your good name.

Some of the red flags to keep in mind are:

  • Alerts on your credit report or from a credit monitoring agency
  • Mail with something off, like your address or a variation in the spelling of your name
  • Court documents that are inconsistent with your personal information, like a missing or different signature or different issue date for your Social Security number (SSN)
  • Unknown transactions on financial statements
  • Missing mail or missing bills
  • Unrecognized calls from debt collectors
  • Services like mobile phones deactivated
  • Unrecognized medical claims on your insurance or denial of service
  • Problems filing a tax return
  • An active warrant for your arrest
  • Your or your child’s information found in a data breach

What to do if you’re a victim of criminal identity theft

The idea of being a victim of criminal identity theft is scary. It can have real-world repercussions that could take years and a lot of money to resolve. Criminal identity theft can impact your life and freedom as well as your finances and credit. It’s definitely not something to take lightly. But there are a series of protections in place that can help you restore your identity and reputation.

If you find you’re a victim of this particular type of fraud, you can take these steps:

  1. If you have identity theft protection, contact your remediation specialists.
  2. Find a lawyer and learn your state’s laws.
  3. File a police report.
  4. File an identity theft report at IdentityTheft.gov.
  5. Alert the credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, to freeze your credit.
  6. Close any fraudulent accounts or any legitimate accounts you feel may have been breached.
  7. File a report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

While you can lobby for restoration on your own, having an identity theft protection service with remediation specialists can save you time, money, and offer peace of mind.

Tips to protect yourself from identity theft

The best offense is a good defense — so the best way to protect yourself is to sign up for an identity theft protection service. While you can monitor all of the above red flags on your own, you’re bound to miss one or just get tired of spending so much time and energy keeping yourself safe. Some identity theft protection services are pricey, but there are others that are affordable and even offer identity theft insurance to help with missing funds, attorney fees, and other expenses.

Other ways to protect yourself:

  • Make sure you’re using a unique, strong password for every online account (especially your bank accounts).
  • Regularly review your free credit report from all three major credit bureaus by visiting annualcreditreport.com.
  • Use a mailbox with a lock or retrieve your mail as soon as possible after delivery.
  • Set alerts on your credit score or keep your credit locked.
  • Use a virtual private network (VPN) whenever you’re on public Wi-Fi.
  • Report lost or stolen wallets or purses immediately.
  • Use a payment method like PayPal or Affirm instead of putting your credit card number into websites.
  • Don’t give out your SSN unless you’re legally required.
  • Monitor bank statements and other financial information for discrepancies.

The best data removal services help remove your personal information from the internet, which, in turn, lowers your chances of becoming a victim of any type of identity theft.

Best identity theft protection services

If you’re going to subscribe to an identity theft protection service, you should absolutely make sure it’s one of the best ID theft protection services available. We’ve tested and reviewed each of these and can report that they are all quality services. Depending on the number of people you need to cover and the extra features you want, one may be right for you too.

  • Aura: We found Aura to be so useful and user-friendly that it has a near-perfect score from us. It includes a password manager and a VPN for added security as well as robust parental controls and spam call protection. We were happy with the variety of pricing and options for individuals, couples, and families as well.

    Get Aura | Read Aura Review
  • LifeLock: LifeLock can be a little pricey, but it offers the most identity theft insurance we’ve seen, at $3 million per person for the Ultimate Plus plan. Mix that with other features like credit monitoring and crime-related name alerts, and you have an intuitive tool. We also like that it can be bundled with Norton’s other security products for a comprehensive security plan.

    Get LifeLock | Read LifeLock Review
  • Identity Guard: Identity Guard’s Value Plan is affordable for many budgets, and that’s something we really appreciate in this economy. All plans come with identity theft insurance, dark web monitoring, and safe browsing features, but the more expensive the plan, the more it has to offer. Even the most expensive plans are reasonably priced and can monitor everything from your credit to your social media accounts. Not a bad deal at all.

    Get Identity Guard | Read Identity Guard Review

Criminal identity theft FAQs


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How do criminals get a new identity?

Criminals can obtain a new identity in a variety of ways. Mail theft, while it may seem more annoying than harmful, is still a large contributor to identity theft.

Data breaches we hear about in the news are another huge contributor. That data is either used by the thief, which is less likely, or sold either to a data broker or on the dark web. Identity thieves can then purchase your personal information, sometimes legally, through one of these methods.


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How common is criminal identity theft?

According to the Department of Justice for the State of California, criminal identity theft is rare, but it does occur. If it does happen, it can lead to many problems for the fraud victim. If you’re a victim, you may end up in court to have a judge clear your name. If you suspect criminal identity theft has happened to you, it’s best to contact an attorney and know your state’s laws regarding victims of criminal identity fraud.


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How do the most known cases of identity theft occur?

Most known cases of identity theft occur because of data breaches. Most people gloss over news reports of data theft, data sales, and other methods of sharing data, but they’re the single biggest contributor to identity theft.

If you get a notice of a data breach, make sure to change your passwords and resecure your accounts. It may take some time, but it’ll be less time than what you’ll spend repairing your identity after it’s been stolen.

Bottom line

While criminal identity theft is rare, it’s still part of the larger identity theft problem fueled by data theft. Whether the data is stolen through mail theft or by a hacker executing a successful data breach, it’s still a violation of your privacy. You can use several methods to reduce your risk, but it’s likely all of your information is already available on data broker sites and the dark web. The best way to protect yourself is by using an identity theft protection service.

The best identity theft protection services will provide you with alerts so you can get ahead of any issues that may arise. You’ll also receive identity theft insurance and remediation services. It’s completely possible to do all of this on your own, but having a service made for these situations will save you so much time, energy, money, and sanity. You can help yourself by keeping secure passwords on all your accounts, educating yourself on what phishing attempts look like, and being the guardian of your own data.

4.9
Editorial Rating
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On Aura Identity Theft's website
Aura Identity Theft
  • Excellent identity theft protection service
  • Includes a password manager and VPN
  • Robust tools for children’s security
  • Provides VantageScore and not FICO score updates

Author Details
Mary lives in Los Angeles and has been a cybersecurity writer for over five years. With a B.S. in Liberal Arts from Clarion University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Point Park University in Pittsburgh, her career in online security began in sales and content creation for a private cybersecurity firm.