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Online Impersonation vs. Identity Theft: Is There a Difference?

Allison here with AllClear ID. As defined by the Department of Justice, identity theft includes, “crimes in which someone wrongfully obtains and uses another person’s personal data in some way that involves fraud or deception, typically for economic gain.” Using this definition, online impersonation can technically be considered identity theft, but is there more to the story? Should there be one kind of penalty for identity theft and another kind of penalty for online impersonation? Let’s take a closer look.

A recent news story talked about a Texas woman who started to receive phone calls of a sexual nature from unknown men. When she finally asked one how he got her number, he replied that he saw it in an ad on Craigslist. As it turns out, the ad was posted by the girlfriend of her ex-husband, who claimed she posted the ad as a “joke” when she was confronted about it. The girlfriend was ultimately charged with online impersonation, but many people may think this was an act of identity theft as well.

Texas law defines online impersonation as “creat[ing] a webpage or send[ing] an email or an instant message on the Internet using the name or domain name of another person with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten another person or persons.” The way the law is phrased outlines a key difference between identity theft and online impersonation: identity theft is meant to benefit the thief, while online impersonation is meant to harm someone other than the impersonator.

Furthermore, identity theft typically involves stealing very specific personal information, like a social security number or a credit card number. It often involves much more than using the name or telephone number of another, and usually necessitates some credit report cleanup on the part of the victim.

While these distinctions do not make either identity theft or online impersonation easier to deal with, there is one more distinct difference between the two crimes: the ability of consumers to take proactive measures to protect themselves. With identity theft, there are a variety of measures someone can take to secure their personal information and to prevent it from ending up in the wrong hands. Online impersonation is much more difficult to safeguard against, since theoretically all someone needs is a name and possibly a phone number to impersonate another person over the internet.  Both identity theft and online impersonation can have serious consequences for the victims, and should therefore be criminalized under the law. However, the aftermath of identity theft is often much more far-reaching than that of online impersonation, which raises the question as to whether the two crimes should require different penalties for perpetrators.


  1. This may be harsh but I feel severe punishment should be delt out to the internet impersonator as well as the identity thief. In this day and age when there are so few avenues left to the average person to keep a sense of total privacy (were being tracked from multiple sources from the moment we get up in the morning); when any one goes over the line, practicle joke or not, they deserve punishment harsh enough it gets their attension. These situations are not funny to the victims.

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