A Primer on Identity Theft in Washington State
In today's digital world, identity theft is an ever-present threat. With technology becoming more and more woven into the fabric of our daily lives, the risk of someone using your personal information to apply for credit cards, secure loans, or conduct other potentially ruinous financial activities in your name, is everywhere.
Washington State legislators recently took action to combat identity theft by strengthening the state's data breach notification law and its identity theft task forces. The data breach notification law requires companies to notify you as soon as possible (and no later than 45 days after the event) whenever your personal information has been likely compromised. In addition, the state's identity theft task force – which is made up of law enforcement, prosecutors, federal agents, and bank fraud investigators – has been expanded to help fight identity theft and financial fraud.
Two Potential Charges
Chapter 9.35 of the Revised Code of Washington lays out the crimes and punishments associated with identity crimes committed in the state. In its findings, Washington's Legislature made it clear that it considered identity crimes to be very serious and that it intended to “penalize…each unlawful act of improperly obtaining, possessing, using, or transferring means of identification or financial information of an individual person.” See RCW 9.35.001.
There are two main identity crimes you can be charged with in Washington: 1) “identity theft” and 2) “improperly obtaining financial information.”
- Identity Theft Defined
According to RCW 9.35.020(1), it is a crime to knowingly use, possess, or obtain the “means of identification” or the “financial information” of another person with the intent to then commit a crime. This prohibition on the use and/or possession of someone else's identification or financial information applies no matter whether the other person is living or deceased.
The statute defines “financial information” very broadly to include many types of information, including: bank account numbers, account balances, information about deposits and withdrawals, even a person's passwords, social security number, driver's license number, or other state identification number. See RCW 9.35.005(1).
The statute also defines “means of identification” in an expansive manner, as “information or an item that is not describing finances or credit but is personal to or identifiable with an individual or other person.” See RCW 9.35.005(3). This includes common items like a driver's license or social security card, as well as less obvious items like a current or former name of the person, a telephone number, an electronic address, or even identifying information about a person's ancestors. However, the statute excludes individuals who use, possess, or obtain another person's driver's license or other form of identification for the sole purpose of misrepresenting his or her age. See RCW 9.35.020(9). Thus, for example, an underage person who tries to use his or her older sibling's driver's license to get into a club or purchase cigarettes cannot be charged with identity theft.
Penalties for Identity Theft
The penalties you could face under a charge of identity theft depend on the value of the item or items procured. Under RCW 9.35.020(2), if a person uses someone else's means of identification or financial information to obtain “credit, money, goods, services, or anything else of value” in excess of $1,500, that person has committed identity theft in the first degree. Identity theft in the first degree is a Class B felony, which is punishable by confinement in a state correctional facility for up to ten years. See RCW 9A.35.020(2) andRCW 9A.20.021(1)(b). Adult offenders may also face a fine of up to $20,000, which can be levied in addition to, or instead of, jail time.
If, however, the amount of credit, money, goods, services, or other item of value illegally procured by that person was $1,500 or less, he or she can only be charged with identity theft in the second decree. Still, Identity theft in the second degree is a Class C felony, which is punishable by confinement in a state correctional facility for up to five years. See RCW 9.35.020(3) andRCW 9A.20.021(1)(c). Adult offenders may also face a fine of up to $10,000, which can be levied in addition to, or instead of, jail time.
In keeping with the Legislature's desire to penalize each unlawful identity theft crime, RCW 9.35.020(4) further notes that each identity crime prosecuted under the identity theft section is to be punished separately. In addition, the Legislature made it clear that anyone who commits a second, separate crime during the commission of identity theft can also be prosecuted for each crime separately. See RCW 9.35.020(6).
2. Improperly Obtaining Financial Information
In addition to identity theft, Washington State criminalizes the act of “improperly obtaining financial information.” RCW 9.35.010 makes it illegal to obtain or attempt to obtain someone's financial information from a bank or other merchant through the use of false statements or forged or stolen documents. Violation of RCW 9.35.010 is a Class C felony, which is punishable by confinement in a state correctional facility for up to five years. See RCW 9.35.010(5) andRCW 9A.20.021(1)(c). Adult offenders can also face a fine of up to $10,000, instead of, or in addition to, jail time. Furthermore, anyone who violates this section is liable to their victim for any actual damages incurred, at minimum $500, as well as the other party's reasonable attorneys' fees. See RCW 9.35.010(6).
“Let My Extensive Experience as a Former Prosecutor Work For You.”
With law enforcement agencies across Washington State focusing more on identity crimes, you need a knowledgeable defense lawyer who will fight for your legal rights and advocate for your best interests. Experienced criminal defense attorney Steve Karimi is a former prosecutor who is committed to using his background and experience to work for you to achieve the best possible resolution to your case. The Law Office of Steve Karimi assists clients charged with many different criminal misdemeanor and felony charges, including the identity crimes discussed above.
If you or a loved one has been arrested or charged with an identity crime like identity theft in King County, Snohomish County, Skagit County, Whatcom County, or Kittitas County, contact our offices at 206-660-6200. Don't wait – call today!