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Introduction  Title:




The debate about identity-related crime 

Since a couple of years, attention for identity-related crime is increasing in Belgium, and a debate about the use and abuse of identity (documents and data) and related crime is taking place. The debate was initially mainly limited to problems of document fraud, such as fraud with ID cards and especially with passports and travel documents. Blank documents (especially passports) were stolen and later illegally used, identity documents were counterfeited, existing identity documents were used by someone other than the owner to whom the document was issued (look-alike fraud) or travel documents (such as visa) were obtained in a fraudulent way. The discussion, however, has broadened. The debate now also includes problems with online authentication and the misuse of identity (data) and is intensified in the light of some recent cases of online credit card and identity fraud and theft.

Although identity-related crime has always taken place, it remained nevertheless rather limited as compared with other countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom. This may be partly explained by the fact that citizens in Belgium are since long obliged to carry identity cards. The identity card is the evidence of the registration in the population register kept by the government and can be used for identification purposes. The information on the identity card is an extract of the information kept in the population registers and the central National Register. In case of doubt, the identity of Belgian citizens could hence be easily verified. When an identity document is stolen or lost, the citizen can, after filing a declaration of the theft or loss with the local police,  obtain a new identity document without too many problems.  The easiness to obtain a new identity document after an incident of theft could therefore also be a weakness. In order to file a declaration of theft or loss, the individual needs to submit a recent picture and any document that could prove her identity, such as a driver’s license, but also other documents are accepted, such as evidence of registration in a health insurance service. After such a declaration, the procedure for the re-issuance of a new identity document starts automatically after fifteen days. The individual may also choose to immediately request a new identity document, in which  case the previous (lost or stolen) identity document becomes immediately invalid. Perpetrators may abuse this system to obtain a new identity document to commit fraud.  

The focus of the debate however is no longer only on document theft or fraud, but also on identity-related theft and fraud. These crimes are accelerating because of the increasing use of electronic communication services, in particular over the Internet, where the verification and authentication of identity is less obvious than in an off line environment. In addition, these new communication channels and technologies are sometimes misused to fraudulently obtain confidential information about individuals, such as personal and identity-related data. With this information, criminals attempt to gain access to bank accounts or to engage in contracts in the name of someone else.

When the electronic version of the existing mandatory identity card for citizens was introduced in Belgium, it was highlighted that the eID card with its enhanced authentication functionalities offers the advantage that it can be used as a tool for combating fraud in an on-line environment. The limited distribution of eID card readers and the rather limited number of applications which have been developed so far to allow the use of the eID, however, have resulted in a rather limited absorption at present of the benefits that the Belgian eID card could offer.

Framework Note on Integrated Security 

In 2004, the federal government adopted in a Framework Note on Integrated Security (hereinafter ‘Framework Note’) in which identity theft was identified, in the context of computer crime, as one of the priorities in crime prevention and combat. The Framework Note stressed that an integrated approach is needed which requires the cooperation between several services with attention for the victims. The Framework Note was prepared by the Service for Criminal Policy (‘Dienst voor het Strafrechtelijk Beleid’) which is part of the Federal Department of Justice. The Service for Criminal Policy advises the Minister of Justice. The Service has been established in order to collect useful information, for example about the evolution of a specific crime, in order to be able to analyze and research the roots of the crime and to propose a policy to combat such crime. The Framework Note advocates taking action to combat identity-related crime not only on the regulatory level, but also on the level of prevention and repression. The figures which the Service presents or relies on, however, are not up to date. The figures of 2004 are still not finalized. One of the reasons is that the categorization of the central crime register is used. This categorization is based on a division of crimes in seven categories, which does on the one hand not allow one to draw detailed conclusions about the prevalence of identity-related crimes and on the other hand is too detailed (in total more than 2000 lines).

The Framework Note is soon to be replaced by a new framework note for integrated security for the period of 2008-2011.

Definition of identity theft/fraud? 

There is no specific provision in the Penal Code which punishes identity fraud or identity theft as such, or a legal definition of identity-related crime in Belgium. In March 2005, the Minister of the Interior was questioned in the Senate about figures on and trends in identity fraud/theft. At that time, the Minister replied that identity fraud and theft can be defined as ‘each kind of crime that consists in the fraudulent obtaining and using of the identity of someone else with the intent to commit fraud or other criminal activities, usually for economic gain’. The Minister furthermore referred to four kinds of activities in which identity fraud and theft is involved: (1) phishing, (2) theft of web mail accounts or user identity, (3) hacking of computer systems and (4) the use of spyware for obtaining personal and banking data. It was impossible for both the Federal Department of Justice and the Federal Department of the Interior to provide any indication on the cost of identity fraud or identity theft because they had not conducted any in detail investigation of the issue.

In June 2005, the Federal Forensic Police (Directorate economic and financial crime) (‘Directie economische en financiële criminaliteit’) organized a colloquium in Brussels entitled ‘Identity fraud. Crime of the future ?’ There, identity fraud and identity theft were analyzed and discussed by national and international experts. The objectives of that colloquium included raising awareness, knowledge and alertness for identity-related crime. Identity-related crime was analyzed from different angles, including from the perspective of companies and the consequences of identity crime for their economic activities. Because there is no legal definition of identity crime or theft, each speaker made an attempt to give a definition. Some described identity theft as ‘the fraudulent - whether or not short-lived - use of any identity data that belongs to another person’ and stressed that there are several ways such crime can appear (for example, phishing, key logging, account take, etc). Another definition of identity theft that was used in order to assess whether the existing incriminations of the Belgian Penal code were sufficient was ‘the ‘theft’ of someone else’s personal information for later fraudulent use for committing various crimes’. These definitions fall under unlawful identity change (identity fraud) and identity theft in the categorisation of identity-related crime in the FIDIS typology..


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