California Identity Theft Laws

Identity theft often results in stressful, frightening, or even financially-harmful situations. Many pieces of personally identifying information can be used for a defendant's financial gain or to damage a victim's reputation and credit history. Preventing identity theft should be a high priority for consumers, but there are steps you can take to recover from identity theft.

California prohibits obtaining the personally identifying information of another person with the intention of using that information for an unlawful purpose. A prosecutor must show that the defendant willfully obtained the personally identifying information and used it without the owner's consent. California law also criminalizes the sale or transfer of another person's personally identifying information when the defendant had actual knowledge that the information would be used for an unlawful purpose or the defendant had a fraudulent intent when selling or transferring the information.

Defenses to California Identity Theft Charges

  • Consent given by the owner of the personally identifying information;
  • The information wasn't used for an unlawful purpose.

Overview of California Identity Theft Laws

The following chart explores some of the elements of California identity theft laws as well as the penalties that result from a conviction:

Statute California Penal Code Section 530.5-530.55
Unlawful Purpose

A prosecutor must show an unlawful purpose for the personally identifying information. Under state law, a number of activities reflect an unlawful purpose for another person's personally identifying information. These activities include:

  • Applying for credit;
  • Obtaining goods or property; or
  • Requesting medical information.

For example, a defendant may have opened credit cards using another person's name and other pieces of personally identifying information.

Personally Identifying Information

The California Penal Code lists the types of personally identifying information that may be unlawfully taken or used during identity theft crimes. These types of information include:

  • The victim's name;
  • Social security number;
  • Taxpayer identification number;
  • Driver's license number;
  • Passport number;
  • Address;
  • Phone number; and
  • Other related pieces of information.

State law also includes certain types of financial information as personally identifying information; for example, financial information might include:

  • Bank account numbers;
  • Banking pin numbers; and
  • Credit card numbers.

In addition, California law includes biometric information such as:

  • Fingerprints;
  • Voiceprints;
  • Retina and iris images, and other data as personally identifying information.

Additionally, California prosecutors may charge you with the more serious crime of "criminal identity theft" if your actions affect an identity theft victim's criminal record.

Penalties and Sentences

California imposes similar penalties and sentences for identity theft crimes, regardless of whether the defendant acquired, retained, sold, transferred, or used the personally identifying information for an unlawful purpose. The actual sentence often depends on the circumstances of the crime and the severity of the harm suffered by the victim.

California law establishes punishment by:

  • A fine;
  • Imprisonment in county jail for a term of up to one year;
  • Both a fine and term in county jail; or
  • An increased sentence based on the defendant's prior criminal record and other circumstances as permitted by law.

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

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Laws punishing identity theft have been the subject of much discussion in recent years and public awareness and condemnation of the act of identity theft is at an all-time high. This publicity, and the fact that anyone may be a victim of identity theft, means that the accused may face hostility from judges and jurors. Have a free initial case review from a local attorney to discuss how best to deal with your situation.

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