How Identity Thieves Justify Their Pursuits

Note: This is a summary of research done by Heith Copes and Lynne Vieraitis. I highly recommend reading the full paper at:  Identity Theft: Assessing Offenders’ Strategies and Perceptions of Risk

When you hear about crimes, you might think, “How can the criminal do that?” But did you know? Criminals justify their crimes. When a criminal decides to commit crime, he goes through a psychological process of sanitizing the conscience so that the crime can be accomplished. Offenders mentally rationalize their actions and neutralize the guilt associated with them before deciding to commit crime. And identity thieves are no exception to the rule.

Using linguistic devices to blunt the moral force of the law and to neutralize the guilt of criminal participation, the offenders make themselves believe that their actions are ‘acceptable’ if not ‘right’, thus protecting their self-image from serious damage. You tell us, what can social controls do to check or inhibit deviant motivational patterns in situations like these?

Of the offenders interviewed, nearly sixty-percent (n = 35) articulated at least one technique of neutralization and several (n=14) used multiple techniques. However, all the techniques were not mentioned and some techniques were used more frequently than others. The neutralization techniques used by offenders emerged naturally during conversations with no deliberate attempt made to elicit these responses.

It was found that there are many ways in which offenders justify or excuse their crime. Identity thieves, however, tend to rely on a few. In order of frequency, denial of injury, appeal to higher loyalties, denial of victim, and denial of responsibility are the most common excuses used by identity thieves.

Many identity thieves believe that stealing identities causes no real harm to victims because they think the credit damage can be repaired by the victim with a few calls and there is no direct financial loss in it for them.

Other identity thieves, however, do acknowledge the victims only to label them as large, face-less organizations like banks and corporations that deserve victimization (i.e., denial of the victim).

Likewise, individuals who work within an organization to carry out their crimes sometimes rely on the diffusion of responsibility to excuse themselves. Claiming that they only played a minimal role in the crime, they believe they should not be judged like the others. The evidence these individuals point to to prove that they “didn’t really do anything”? The small amount of money they made.

Noble intents, mostly helping people, is another excuse identity thieves use to make sense of and justify their crimes. Some said they did it for their children while others pointed to the fact they had done it just to help that random stranger they had met at a bus station.

Thus, it appears that neutralization is a technique that does not just initiate people into identity theft; it is also a technique identity thieves use to continue their current line of behavior.