The Long and Strange History of Identity Theft

The Long and Strange History of Identity Theft

The word ‘identity theft’ typically conjures up images of large scale data breaches, stolen credit cards, and sneaky, villainous cybercriminals sharing information on the dark web. However, identity theft was not always a crime restricted to the online world.

Criminals have always looked for ways to get a hold of other people’s personal information in order to turn a profit. Unfortunately for their victims, the consequences of this crime can be significant and very emotionally distressing.

The best way to protect yourself from these criminals? By knowing thy enemy. Continue reading to discover the typical strategies and tactics of identity thieves and how best you can protect your privacy online.

Earliest Forms Of Identity Theft

Criminals haven’t always relied on the internet to carry out crimes. In fact, identity theft has a long (and strange) history, reaching all the way back to the 16th century.

In 1591, Russia was ruled by a man known as Feodor the Bellringer, the son of Ivan the Terrible. Ivan was named so for many reasons, not least of all that he had several of his children killed throughout his reign.

One of these children was Dmitry Ivanovitch. Dmitry was around eight years old when he and his mother were sent into exile in a small town called Uglich, where Dmitry is believed to have died at the hands of an assassin sent by his father.

Fast forward 14 years and Moscow was invaded by a man claiming to be Dmitry Ivanovitch. Dmitry stated he had survived the assassination plot and was the rightful heir to the Russian throne. While his first invasion was unsuccessful, he subsequently fought to reclaim his title and became Tsar of Russia from 1605 to 1606.

‘Dmitry’ died in 1606 and is now known as False Dmitry I. Much to the people of Russia’s surprise, a little over a year later, another man appeared who claimed to be the real Dmitry Ivanovitch. Now known as False Dmitry II, this pretender was quickly followed by a third man in 1611 who told supporters he was the one true son of Ivan the Terrible and a legitimate heir to the Russian throne. False Dmitry III was executed shortly thereafter.

Historians now firmly believe that the real Dmitry Ivanovitch passed away in 1591 and his impersonators were nothing more than identity thieves.

Identity Theft In The 20th Century

Jumping 400 odd years ahead in time and we reach the 20th century, where criminals were presented with far more opportunities to nab personal information. The introduction of more advanced forms of technology — such as the phone and later on, the internet — meant that identity theft became far more common and dangerous. In fact, the term ‘identity theft’ was first mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary in the year 1964.

By the mid 20th century, phone scams were beginning to rise in numbers. Criminals would call potential victims and advise that they had won the lottery — they just had to provide their personal details to collect their winnings. Suffice to say, the millions that were promised never appeared.

Criminals also caught onto the fact that masses of personal information lay untapped in, of all places, people’s garbage bins. Discarded letters and credit card statements provided all of the private data that was needed to pull off the perfect identity theft scheme.

The Dangers Of The Digital Age

Fast forward to today and identity theft is a bigger threat than ever before. We live our lives online, which comes with both benefits and downsides. While everyday tasks — like ordering groceries and booking medical appointments — have become more streamlined, there are hidden risks to our attachment to the digital world.

A survey conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology estimated that 1 in 4 Australians have been a victim of identity theft at some point in their lives. These days, the kind of information that cybercriminals typically seek to target include:

  • Full name
  • Date of birth
  • Driver’s license number
  • Address
  • Mother’s maiden name
  • Credit card details
  • Tax file number
  • Medicare card details
  • Passport information
  • Online account login details

Online criminals have taken advantage of our reliance on technology to launch attacks in all sorts of new and innovative ways, including:


An online criminal may contact you via phone, email, or text, pretending to be a legitimate company. They will ask you to provide personal information to confirm your account details. Once they have that information, they will use it for their own purposes.


After tricking you into downloading a dodgy file, a cybercriminal will infiltrate your device with damaging malware. This can allow them to track your keystrokes and collect all sorts of personal information.

Data breaches

This is probably the most common way that online criminals access personal data. If an organisation — be it private or government — does not have adequate security features in place, it’s an open invitation for hackers to gain access to customer data to be sold on the dark web.

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Protecting Yourself Online

Fortunately, there are a range of different strategies that you can use to protect your privacy online. From using anti-virus software to making good use of security features for your social media accounts, there are many ways you can deter online criminals from accessing your data:

  • Use a VPN: What is VPN? A VPN is a type of security software that encrypts all of your data, rendering it useless in the hands of online criminals. By filtering your internet connection through a VPN tunnel, both your data and location is hidden from prying eyes.
  • Practise Good Password Security: Do you know what makes a good password? Well, it’s a combination of uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. Never use the same password for more than one account and always back up your online logins with two-factor authentication.
  • Make The Most Of Security Settings: All of the major social media platforms present users with the option to secure their privacy via personalised security settings. Make sure you are making the most of this — set your Instagram profile to private, protect your Tweets, and avoid sharing too much personal information on Facebook.
  • Use Privacy Protection Software: Privacy software, be it dark web monitoring or an identity advisor program, is crucial to protecting your information online. Dark web monitoring will alert you if your information is found on the dark web, enabling you to take appropriate steps to protect yourself.

Identity theft isn’t a new crime. However, that doesn’t make it any less dangerous. Be sure to take the appropriate steps to protect yourself online and understand the risks of living a digital life.