Identity fraud has become a more common criminal offence as both people and companies have become more Internet reliant. Identity fraud may be non-violent and in many senses an ‘invisible’ crime but it can have a major impact on an individual’s life.


One way of gaining details on someone’s identity is by bin-raiding. Fraudsters pay people to go through the rubbish individual’s throw out, looking for bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers and tax information. Everyday information that someone may not think is important such as old gas, electricity and telephone bills, insurance documents, bank statements and even personal letters and envelopes they were sent in, carry valuable personal information that can be gathered together to steal an identity.


Another method of stealing someone’s private information is credit card skimming. This usually occurs when a shop assistant or waiter, for example, gets your information by ‘skimming’ or copying your credit card information when you make a purchase. They often then sell the information to professional criminal gangs.


Whereas identity theft is usually associated with individuals, large corporations are not immune from such criminal activity. By accessing publicly available company records fraudsters will change names of company principals and registered addresses. They will then trade off the back of the real company’s good name and obtain goods and services on credit from suppliers. This is not the only area of risk. Company bank details may be in the public arena in order to encourage customers to pay for goods directly into the company’s bank account. Fraudsters will obtain signatures from the public records and attempt to attack these company bank accounts by purporting to be the signatory on the account.


Ruthless criminals have been known to use the identities of deceased people to carry out fraudulent activity. Fraudsters will note the age, date of birth and address of deceased people from announcements relating to the death or the funeral.


Many identity thefts are committed by opportunists or petty criminals. But organized crime gangs worldwide are also becoming increasingly involved. Organized crime is believed to be behind many of the large-scale cases of credit fraud and identity theft that involve hacking into major online databases. In Moscow, for example, there are an estimated 6,000 criminal gangs, and most are believed to be involved in identity theft at some level.


Employees are also a major threat, especially in smaller businesses, and most of the recent high-profile identity theft cases have involved trusted employees. One of the most costly identity theft cases happened at a small New York software business and is believed to have cost more than $100 million. According to investigators, over a two-year period, the former employee used an uncancelled password to steal the credit reports of thousands of consumers, and then sold the information to accomplices for about $30 a report.


Within the field of criminology, white-collar crime or ‘incorporated governance’ has been defined by Edwin Sutherland as “a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation” (1949). Sutherland was a proponent of ‘Symbolic Interactionism’, and believed that criminal behaviour was learned from interpersonal interaction with others. White-collar crime therefore overlaps with corporate crime because the opportunity for fraud, bribery, insider trading, embezzlement, computer crime, and forgery is more available to white-collar employees.


In criminology, corporate crime refers to crimes committed either by a corporation (i.e., a business entity having a separate legal personality from the natural persons that manage its activities), or by individuals that may be identified with a corporation or other business entity.


Corporate fraud involves crimes committed in financial markets and in the course of selling financial products. Those crimes include illegal share dealing; illegal mergers and takeovers; various forms of tax evasion; bribery; and other forms of illegal accounting. Enron is the classic example of the latter and has joined a list of offenders – including Guinness (involved in illegal share dealings in the 1980s) and BCCI, a global bank which was systematically involved in fraud; money laundering and bribery – as symbols of what we mean by the term ‘financial crime’.


William Chambliss supports the Marxist standpoint regarding these crimes and argues that the greed, self- interest and hostility generated by a capitalist society motivates crime at all levels within society. For example, in low income areas a mugger or petty thief will try to get what they can and people in higher income brackets will use their knowledge to commit larger scale crime such as identity fraud.


Merton supports the functionalist stand on such crimes. He explains white collar crime in America by suggesting that American society places no upper limit on success so when people have achieved a level of success such as a high profile job they still want more which may be a reason why identity fraud takes place.




Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex