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It is no longer necessary for a thief to steal mail or spy on an unwary person punching in ATM codes and credit card numbers to acquire another person's identity. It is easily accomplished over the Internet via responses to e-mail spam and other schemes. With enough information, the sophisticated thief can apply for and receive credit cards and loans, withdraw funds from banking and checking accounts and purchase thousands of dollars worth of goods using another person's identity.
Identity theft is a federal crime where a person wrongfully obtains the personal information or data of another, through fraud or deception, for unlawful gain. The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, passed by Congress in 1998, makes identity theft a felony, with a possible prison term of up to 15 years.