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Photo Source: Universal Pictures
We love comedies at my house.
Unfortunately, they’re harder to come by these days. In fact, according to movie research firm Nash Information Services, the market share for theatrical comedies has dropped from 21.34 percent 20 years ago to only 5.34 percent today.
In 2013, comedies were still at 14.88 percent. That might explain how I missed Identity Thief when it debuted in theaters. There were just so many comedies to choose from back then.
The movie was a hit, but it still holds up today, thanks to frequent airings on cable TV.
It’s even on Amazon Prime, which was how I was able to catch it. Today, I see it from a completely different perspective than I would have back then, knowing what I know now about identity theft.
So how true is it to real life? And what lessons can we take away from the movie?
What Is Identity Thief (2013)?
Released in 2013, Identity Thief stars Melissa McCarthy as Diana, an identity thief, and Jason Bateman as Sandy, her victim.
There’s a reason Bateman’s character has a unisex name. At several spots in the movie, the female identity thief had an easier time passing as Sandy, while Bateman’s character struggled to explain why he had a traditionally female name.
While the filmmakers definitely took some creative liberties, there are some standout points they made throughout.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
Photo by Kindel Media
Stealing the Information
It’s just another day at the office when Sandy Patterson gets a phone call.
A polite, professional-sounding lady is on the other end of the line. She claims to be from the fraud protection department of a credit monitoring agency.
SOMEONE HAS TRIED TO STEAL HIS IDENTITY.
Sandy is only mildly alarmed.
But it’s okay. The fraud department caught the incident in time, so all is good. But she recommends he signs up for their free identity protection plan.
All she needs is his full name, date of birth, and Social Security number.
Yeah, we already know this isn’t going to end well.
Sandy isn’t as savvy as the rest of us. He agrees and gives up the information.
On the other end of the line, Melissa McCarthy is celebrating as she prepares to jot the information down.
McCarthy’s character, who is later identified as “Diana,” has just committed a phishing scam.
Phishing isn’t the only way scammers get your information, but it’s definitely a popular one. With phishing, an identity thief gets you to click on a link in an email or answer your phone. You’re then prompted to provide compromising information.
Once an identity thief has your information, it’s time to put it to use.
Using the Information
Stealing someone’s personally identifiable information (PII) is only the first step.
Next, the criminal will somehow profit from the data. Here’s a breakdown of Identity Thief’s depiction of using someone’s stolen PII.
1. Creating Fake Credentials
In the movie, Diana has a small device in her house that manufactures credit cards in seconds. She also has multiple fake driver’s licenses on display on her wall.
Yes, you can buy equipment to make fraudulent credit cards. It’s not illegal, hard to get, or difficult to use.
But not all identity thieves use our information to create IDs and cards.
Say you’re Diana. You’ve just grabbed all of Sandy’s information. There are multiple things you can do with that information, including:
- Using his name, contact information, and Social Security number to apply for loans, rent an apartment, land a job, or open credit cards and bank accounts.
- Selling his credentials to fraudsters, who will then use the information to create physical assets or apply for accounts.
- Combining his credentials with other information to commit synthetic identity fraud. Synthetic identity theft creates a persona by combining multiple real identities, real and fictitious identities, or identities of those both living and dead.
In the movie, though, Diana doesn’t just make fake credit cards and driver’s licenses. She’s also selling credit cards to criminals. (Depicted as stereotypical movie “bad guys.”)
You see, Diana sold credit cards to someone named “Paolo.” They were credit cards she’d already used. Paolo is now in jail…and unhappy, so he sends these two bad guys after her.
These bad guys chase Diana and Sandy around the country for the rest of the movie, along with a skiptracer–a slightly less stereotypical bad guy thanks to Robert Patrick’s acting talent. The skiptracer is hired to track down Diana, which puts him at odds with the other bad guys.
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko
2. Making Fraudulent Charges
When she’s not trying to make money on stolen credit cards, Diana’s living the high life. We see her buying multiple rounds of drinks using the new card she’s just created.
The first sign Sandy gets that his identity has been compromised? A phone call from a salon in Florida alerts him that someone has made an appointment under his name. He writes it off as an innocent mistake and goes on with his life.
But then he tries to use his card, and it’s declined. The gas station attendant is instructed to cut the card in half.
Of course, Sandy does the same thing all of us would do. He makes a call to his credit card issuer.
His credit card balance now totals $12,243.67.
That includes a charge of $4,345 at Great Beyond Watersports.
The representative on the phone is both unhelpful and accusatory as she tells him about the charges he supposedly made. It’s clear the charges were made in Winter Park, Florida, and he’s in Denver, Colorado, but the representative still seems to think he made them.
Okay, so…this is where I can speak from experience.
I’ve had my card compromised multiple times – haven’t we all at this point? Every time, I simply called the card issuer and explained the problem. They immediately flagged the charges and launched an investigation.
Of course, a 90-minute movie about a guy clearing up some credit card charges would be pretty boring. So next up, our guy Sandy is ARRESTED.
Yes, arrested. Not because of the fraudulent charges. An officer just happened to have run his car’s license plates and found “Sandy Patterson” was arrested for felony assault a couple of weeks ago.
Luckily, another officer sees that the mug shot doesn’t match. Sandy is free to go.
But Sandy wants the police to do something about the thief. That’s where we get to the next phase…
Catching the Scammer
In real life, catching an identity thief isn’t nearly as action-packed as in the movies. But there are a few things the movie got right (and a few more it didn’t).
Here’s a breakdown of how Identity Thief portrayed catching these criminals.
1. Jurisdiction and Identity Theft
The officer in the movie described identity theft like this:
“They get ahold of your name, your birthday, Social Security, and then they run up debt, get arrested, commit crimes as you.”
Sandy, naturally, assumes the cops are going to go arrest this criminal. But nope, that’s not how it works.
According to the fictional detective, Denver PD simply opens and closes the case. Each jurisdiction where she commits identity fraud is then responsible for prosecuting her.
If she steals something on Amazon using his credentials, Seattle PD would investigate.
So, in order to prosecute her, the fictional officer says, she’ll need to be standing right here in front of him.
That’s the entire premise of the movie. Sandy has to go catch Diana and bring her back. Obviously, if he’d just shrugged and headed home to his wife and kids, the movie wouldn’t have been interesting. But it’s important to note that THIS IS NOT HOW JURISDICTION WORKS.
There is no need for a criminal to be physically present to be prosecuted in the state where a crime was committed. That was the case in 2013 when this movie was released, and it’s the case today.
Identity theft is a federal crime.
In 1998, Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, which amended 18 U.S.C. § 1028 to make it a federal crime to:
- Knowingly possess stolen identification.
- Knowingly traffic in false identification.
- Knowingly produce false identification to commit fraud.
That said, the movie is right about one thing. It’s not easy to catch and prosecute an identity thief.
Credit: Kindel Media
2. Catching Identity Thieves
Just 18 minutes into the movie, the officer says something that caught my attention.
According to the character, it takes six months to a year to catch an identity thief.
But don’t worry, he tells Sandy. They have a good history of solving these cases. Approximately 5 to 10 percent of all identity theft crimes are solved.
That’s not a bad statistic. Finding actual numbers proved impossible. I tried, believe me. Some sites reference a report from 2006 that says one in 700 identity thieves are caught and prosecuted, but the original report seems to be long gone.
Even if that above number is right, though, how many identity theft incidents are never reported?
One notable fact, though, is that of all of the victims who resolve their identity theft, 55 percent took care of it IN LESS THAN A DAY.
3. Scammer Motivations
Identity Thief has a tough job to do:
Make an identity thief relatable, even likable.
It does this by giving Diana motivation for her behavior. She’s lonely and isolated, with no family or friends of her own.
While a life of committing a crime can make for a great movie, in real life, criminals aren’t motivated to steal because of loneliness.
In fact, the top motivation for identity theft is financial gain. (Duh!)
Power and “the thrill of the crime” are also motives.
In that sense, it’s similar to other types of larceny.
But the ending of Identity Thief says it all about where the writers were going with her character.
In the last scene, Sandy, his wife, and his kids visit Diana in jail. The once-lonely identity thief is no longer an isolated loser. She has people who care about her.
Sandy even cares so much that he’s tracked down her birth certificate, which has her real name: Dawn.
It’s all about that character’s redemption. But if we’re ever in Sandy’s shoes, I doubt we’ll be seriously visiting our thieves in jail.
Fixing the Fraud
Sandy took matters into his own hands.
He tracked down his identity thief with the goal of bringing her back to the police in Denver.
Yeah…don’t do that.
Here’s what you should do.
1. Prevent When Possible
If possible, prevent identity theft from happening in the first place.
To start, don’t follow Sandy’s lead. If someone asks for information from you, whether by phone or message, say “No.”
Safeguard your PII at all costs. You’ll need to provide your information in some instances, including when dealing with medical providers and customer service. The key is to make sure you are the one initiating contact.
2. Detect and Take Action
It’s also important to keep an eye on your accounts.
Look for any strange activity in your financial statements. Set up notifications so you’re alerted when someone makes a charge to your credit card or applies for credit in your name.
If you know what’s going on with your account, you’ll be much more likely to catch things early, which can stop identity theft in its tracks.
Once you’ve detected suspicious activity, take swift action. Lock down your credit, file a police report, and get in touch with your identity theft protection provider.
What’s identity theft protection?
3. Consider Identity Theft Protection
Companies like Aura, LifeLock, and IdentityForce exist to protect you from identity theft.
These services keep an eye out for you, alerting you if fraud is detected.
You’ll also get help with some of the cost of cleaning things up if the worst happens.
That might save you from going on the run with your thief.
Identity theft is no fun, even in the movies.
While there are some inaccuracies in Identity Thief, Sandy’s pain is all too real.
Preventing it from happening, along with knowing where to turn if it does, can make a big difference.
And that’s where movies like Identity Thief may help you.
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