Who Are You Really? The History of Identity Theft

It seems bad things always come with the good. And for many, the bad that came with the goodness of technology was identity theft. However, identity theft far predates the first online shopping experience.

Let’s take a look at how this criminal act has evolved over time.

Identity Theft in the Bible

This criminal act dates back to Biblical times. In fact, in the book of Genesis we discover the first recorded instance of identity theft.

Esau and JacobThough Esau and Jacob were twins, Esau was Dad’s favorite and Jacob was preferred by Mom. When the brothers suspected Dad was on his last leg, Esau asked for his blessing (which would impact the inheritance as well). His father consented, but asked Esau to prepare him a meal first.

Sneaky Mom wanted Jacob to get all the glory, so she whipped up a scam with her favorite boy. They both knew Dad could hardly see and would rely on touch to identify his favorite. Since Esau was a hairy fella, Jacob covered his arms with animal hair.

Jacob snuck in and presented his hairy arms to Dad while Esau was still getting dinner ready. When Dad felt the hairy arm, he believed Esau was in his presence and therefore gave Jacob the blessing.

Essentially, Jacob got all the financial and agricultural gains that were due to Esau because he lied about who he was. Thusly, identity theft began…

Wild West and Gangster Style Identity Theft

During the Wild West era, bank robbers and other outlaws were known to murder people for the sake of assuming a new persona. This new name and life story enabled them to hide out from the law.

Other instances of identity theft in the early part of American history revolved around voting. Identities were stolen and created for the sake of ballot stuffing. Ballot stuffing enabled one party to outweigh the other on Election Day.

While ballot stuffing wasn’t typically a murderous form of identity theft, the Wild West style continued into the days of Al Capone. Mobsters were constantly hunted; therefore, it became necessary to create their own version of the witness protection plan.

Usually, this involved killing the witness and stealing all legal and identity-based documents. People wearing concrete shoes had a hard time complaining about the loss of their driver’s licenses.

Thieving for a Drink or a Job

When prohibition came to a close in the early thirties, states were granted the right to set their own legal drinking ages.

At first, these state-by-state drinking laws caused college students to travel a lot. If students attended school in a state with a drinking age of 21, they would simply drive to a state where the 18 or 19-year-olds partied.

But soon, these industrious drinkers figured out a way to drink—and not drive. All they needed was a fake ID. In 1984, congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Once everyone had to wait until their 21st birthday to imbibe, the popularity of fake IDs really took off.

However, the purpose of obtaining a fake ID shifted gears in the late 1980s. A few decades before, the nation saw a huge influx of immigrants. In an attempt to organize these new residents, the government passed the Immigration Control and Reform Act.

As part of the hiring process, employers were supposed to check the identification of their employees. In order to maintain their jobs, the immigrants quickly sought out fake identification papers. Most used the social security numbers of deceased citizens.

From Phone, to Trash, to Cyberspace: Identity Theft Evolves

While some people were busy creating IDs to get into bars or maintain their careers, others were more interested in attaining access to innocent people’s money.

Initially, these thefts began on the telephone. The thief would inform his victims that they’d won some sort of prize. In order to claim that prize, all the innocent citizen needed to do was provide a slew of personal information.

People were still naïve to scams of this nature and frequently found themselves in dire straits due to the cleaning out of their savings accounts and resale of their property (often with them in it).

Eventually, people wised up to this so thieves needed a new scam. They began sorting through trash in hopes of discovering discarded credit card and bank statements. With this information, they could steal the financial identity of their unknowing victims.

In response to the increase of financial identity theft, another law was passed: the Truth in Lending Act of 1968. From there, we can track the history of chargebacks.

Chargebacks are a form of consumer protection, made necessary by the increase in identity theft. Since identity theft commonly leads to unauthorized credit card transactions, consumers needed a way to get their money back. Therefore, chargebacks and the TILA were entered into the history books.

Most recently the advent of the internet with its hackers and viruses has become a key method of identity theft. Personal information shared over unsecured networks or WiFi that is not password protected is some of the thieves’ favorite things. Sadly, larceny evolves as previous methods are hindered.

Identity Theft of the Future

If there is anything we’ve learned by looking at the history books it’s that criminals will grow and evolve. They are always on the hunt for the new ways to commit old crimes.

While no one knows exactly what identity theft will look like in the future, one thing is for certain: our most sensitive personal information will always be up for grabs.

Julia Richardson is a business writer who also happens to be infatuated with history.