Victims of Crime Research Digest, Issue No. 5

Identity-Related Crime: What It Is and How It Impacts VictimsFootnote 1

Mellisa Northcott, M.A. is a researcher with the Research and Statistics Division, Department of Justice Canada, in Ottawa, and is doing research on a range of victim issues.

Many of us have heard of at least some of the different types of identity-related crime: credit card fraud, medical fraud, real-estate fraud and loan fraud. In the United States, identity-related crime has been referred to as one of the fastest growing crimes (Identity Theft Resource Center n.d; Office for Victims of Crime 2010). In Canada, it certainly exists, but we know less about its prevalence. Police services started officially tracking these offences only in 2010.

If you have been a victim of identity-related crime, the impacts are real and often devastating. The Government of Canada takes identity-related crime seriously and has undertaken several initiatives to educate Canadians on the issue. These initiatives include: Web sites to inform Canadians about identity-related crime, such as the Web site of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada;Footnote 2 special reports on identity- related crime, such as the Criminal Intelligence Service Canada report;Footnote 3 and public awareness campaigns, such as Public Safety Canada’s national cyber security public awareness campaign,Footnote 4 which was launched in the fall of 2011 as part of its Canadian Cyber Security Strategy.Footnote 5

The Research and Statistics Division of the Department of Justice Canada has undertaken a review of literature to examine the needs of victims more closely as well as a review of services provided to victims of identity-related crime and how well the services respond to the needs of these victims.

Social sciences databases were used to conduct the literature review in combination with Internet searches. An additional Internet search was conducted on services provided to victims of identity-related crime in Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the European Union as well as the services provided by the United Nations. Individuals working within the area of identity-related crime (e.g., victim services providers, law enforcement, and government officials) were also contacted to clarify information gathered from Web sites and to request program evaluations where appropriate. In the absence of program evaluations, the stated mandate and activities of organizations/programs were examined to determine whether they could meet the documented needs of victims of identity-related crime.

What Is Identity-Related Crime?

Identity-related crime includes both identity theft and identity fraud. Identity theft is defined as the “unauthorized possession, trafficking or use of personal information,” while identity fraud is “the fraudulent use of another person’s personal identification to gain advantage, obtain property, disadvantage another person, avoid arrest or defeat or obstruct the course of justice” (Cross Border Crime Forum 2010, 2).

In January 2010, Bill S-4: An Act to amend the Criminal Code (identity theft and related misconduct), came into force. Bill S-4 created three new offences relating to the early stages of identity-related crime, all subject to a maximum five-year imprisonment (Department of Justice Canada 2010). In addition, the restitution provisions in the Criminal Code were amended to cover reasonable expenses necessary to re-establish the identity, including expenses to replace identity documents, and to correct credit history and credit ratings (Parliament of Canada 2009).

It is difficult to determine the exact prevalence of identity-related crime in Western countries for several reasons. First, several months often pass between the commission of the offence and the realization that one has been a victim. Also, for many reasons, including shame and embarrassment, many individuals do not report their victimization (Deem et al. 2000; Office for Victims of Crime 2010). In Canada, official statistics have only recently begun to be gathered on these offences.Footnote 6

In January 2010, the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCR2) began collecting police-reported data on identity theft. These data reveal that in 2010, there were 796 police-reported incidents of identity theft and 6,141 police-reported incidents of identity fraud in Canada.

In addition to police-reported data, there are several other sources of information on the nature and prevalence of identity-related crime. Data are available through the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC), “Canada’s central agency [that] collects information and criminal intelligence on identity-related crime and fraud” (Cross Border Crime Forum 2010, 14). In 2010, the CAFC received 18, 146 calls from victims of identity fraud. This is an increase from 14,797 calls in 2009 and 12,309 calls in 2008 (Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre 2010). Academic studies have also been done on identity-related crime. Sproule and Archer (2008), for example, estimated that 1.7 million Canadians were the victims of identity fraud in the year prior to their study. In a 2009 public opinion survey, 16% of respondents in Canada said that they had been the victim of identity theft in their lifetime (EKOS Research Associated 2009). Additionally, results from the 2009 General Social Survey (GSS) on Victimization found that 4% of Canadians were the victims of Internet bank fraud in the year prior to the survey (Perreault 2011). Moreover, 39% of Canadians reported being the victims of a phishing attempt during the same time period.Footnote 7 One of the key limitations of these different data sources is that each of the studies uses different definitions of identity-related crime and, as a result, may be measuring different activities.

There is, in addition to these sources of data on prevalence, other research that has explored the reactions to victimization and the needs of victims of identity-related crime.

What Impact Does Identity-Related Crime Have on Victims?

Although every victim has a different victimization experience, there are reactions that are common to many victims. These common reactions can include mood/emotional reactions, such as anger, guilt and anxiety; social reactions, such as avoidance and alienation; thinking/memory-related reactions, such as flashbacks and confusion; and physical reactions, such as nausea and headaches (Hill 2009).

Through research, program evaluations and consultations, victims of crime have also expressed a number of needs: the need for help with emotional/psychological recovery, which can include emotional support and professional therapy; concrete/tangible needs, such as information on how to avoid re-victimization and on safety planning; and information about the system or advocacy, including information on, and help with, the police or a court case and assistance in dealing with agencies (Newmark 2004).

Research shows that victims of identity-related crime often experience many of the same emotional, social, cognitive and physical reactions as victims of other types of crime. In addition to these reactions, there are other specific impacts, including the following:

  • direct financial losses, such as money owed to companies and banks, as well as out-of-pocket expenses from clearing one’s credit rating;
  • indirect financial losses, such as damage to one’s credit rating and denials of credit;
  • time spent trying to clear one’s credit rating and name;
  • impacts on physical health, such as sleep difficulties, weight loss or gain, and strokes;
  • emotional impacts, such as anger, isolation, helplessness and loss of trust; and
  • negative impacts on relationships, such as family stress and divorce.

(Bi-national Working Group on Cross-Border Mass Marketing Fraud 2004; Cross Border Crime Forum 2010; Deem 2000; Deem et al. 2007; Fraud Advisory Panel 2006; Identity Theft Resource Center 2009; Lawson 2009; National Crime Victim Law Institute 2011).

Research further shows that victims of identity-related crime will have needs that are unique to their situation, such as the following:

  • service providers who are knowledgeable about identity-related crime;
  • advice on how to avoid being re-victimized;
  • help with creditors and banks; and
  • help repairing their identity, their credit and getting fraudulent accounts cleared.

(Button et al. 2009a; Button et al. 2009b; Deem et al. 2007; Pascoe et al. 2006).

Promising Practices

Professionals working in the field of victim assistance and other researchers recommend several best practices that victim services providers and other professionals can apply when assisting victims of identity-related crime.

These include:

  • managing the expectations of victims, including the likelihood that they will be reimbursed for any lost money;
  • easing the process for victims by creating a standard complaint form and providing an official police report when requested;
  • establishing a one-stop centre where victims can obtain all of the help they require in one place, including legal assistance and counselling services;
  • ensuring that the victim’s privacy is protected at all times; and
  • ensuring that detailed information is kept on the case and that victims are contacted regularly.

(Button et al. 2009a; Deem et al. 2007; Lawson 2009; Office for Victims of Crime 2010).

Services Available for Victims of Identity- Related Crime

As a result of the increasing recognition of identity-related crime in Canada, the United States and other Western countries, today there is more information and help available to victims of identity-related crime than in the past. As an Internet search indicates, this assistance is provided through Web sites, call centres, and victim services organizations. The following is a brief description of the services they provide to victims as well as an assessment of the extent to which they meet victims’ needs.

Web Sites

There are a number of Web sites that provide information on identity-related crime. The organizations that provide this information are often organizations dedicated to the elimination of fraud in general, joint initiatives between government organizations, and general organizations whose focus is on criminal justice or financial matters. There are also Web sites that are dedicated solely to sharing information about identity-related crime. The information provided on these Web sites may be helpful, as some provide information about identity-related crime in general as well as ways to prevent re-victimization. Only basic information, however, is provided on the majority of these Web sites.

Insurance Companies and Credit Bureaus

Several insurance companies offer clients identity theft insurance that helps cover costs incurred by victims. There are also a number of credit bureaus that provide services to victims of identity-related crime, such as providing credit reports and applying fraud warnings to credit files (Royal Canadian Mounted Police 2010).Footnote 8 Some of these services help to address victims’ needs by intervening with creditors, requesting/providing credit reports, getting fraudulent credit cards and bank accounts cleared, and repairing credit. These organizations do not provide other types of support to victims, such as emotional support or help with the criminal justice system.

Organizations Providing Direct Services

There are also organizations that provide direct services to victims. They include reporting agencies, support centres, and general victim services providers. Reporting agencies allow victims to report identity-related crime and will pass on the information to police and other important organizations. Many reporting agencies provide some services to victims beyond the initial reporting, such as facilitating victim self-help by providing a hotline and providing forms that can be used when communicating with the necessary agencies. These centres do not provide one-on-one help to victims.

There are also support centres that provide direct services to victims. These centres often provide help from trained professionals who are knowledgeable about the specific crime and who are supportive and understanding. Many also have a very strict privacy policy and facilitate victim self-help through information provided on their Web sites or on-site. These centres do not provide help with criminal justice proceedings, and some do not help victims with the financial challenges associated with victimization.

General victim services providers also provide assistance to victims of identity-related crime. These victim services providers are able to provide general services such as working with other organizations, providing referrals for victims and assistance in court proceedings. There are a few organizations that have been established to specifically address the needs of victims of identity-related crime. These organizations provide assistance with the criminal justice system, emotional support, free counselling, and help with the financial challenges. Many also provide continuous follow-up with victims, have strict privacy policies, and inform victims of their rights. These organizations specializing in addressing the needs of victims of identity-related crime are rare, and although they will refer calls to the police, they do not act as reporting centres.


While research shows that victims of identity-related crime share many of the same reactions to victimization and the same needs as victims of other crimes, they also have unique reactions and needs. Many of the countries examined now provide services specifically to this group. In the absence of rigorous program evaluations, no conclusive statements can be made as to whether these services are meeting victims’ needs. Based on the review conducted, however, it does appear that the mandate and activities of many of these services meet at least some, if not many, of the needs of their clients. In order to determine whether available services are truly meeting victims’ needs, methodologically rigorous program evaluations should be conducted.

Despite gaps in the data on the prevalence and nature of identity-related crime, we do know that the needs of victims are real. Given that each year, more and more of our personal, professional and commercial interactions occur electronically, it is important to understand identity-related crime, its impacts and how to best respond to the unique needs of victims of that type of crime.


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