A prolific identity theft suspect arrested in Santa Barbara prompted LAPD officers to search for additional victims to come forward. According to police, Maria Christina Johnson would use popular dating websites and home rental services to locate and lure in her victims. Once she was allowed into their home, she would search for the victims’ identifying information, copy or steal it, and then use it to open lines of credit in the victims’ names. Unfortunately, Johnson didn’t stop with just stealing her initial victims’ identities. Police allege that she would also try and obtain the identifying information of her victims’ relatives, and in-turn steal their identities as well.
During the alleged crime spree, it’s believed that Johnson stole over $250,000 from her victims by fraudulently using credit cards in their names. Her lifestyle included stays in high-end hotels, lots of travel, and at least one attempt to purchase an automobile. Johnson was arrested by investigators on April 28 and is being held in lieu of $2 million dollars bail. She’s thus far been charged with 11 counts of identity theft.
Identity theft is covered under California Penal Code 530.5 PC and is one of the fastest growing crimes in the US. The crime is described pretty broadly as taking another individual’s identifying information and using it an unlawful or fraudulent manner. Because the definition is so broad, identity theft can, and has been, charged in cases where an individual created a fraudulent social media account and used it to fraudulently pose as their victim. It should be noted that simply stealing another individual’s identity isn’t necessarily the crime; it’s using that identity for a fraudulent or unlawful manner. This means that if someone takes only one individual’s identifying information, but uses it 5 separate times in the manner specified above, the individual could be facing 5 charges of identity theft.
In California, identity theft is a “wobbler” that can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances of the case, and the defendant’s prior criminal history. In this case, Johnson has an extensive prior criminal history in California, Oregon and Washington State and it includes identity theft. As such, she will likely be facing felony charges.
Felony penalties for identity theft include 16-months to 3-years in county jail and a fine of up to $10,000. Misdemeanor convictions carry the possible penalties of up to 1-year in county jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.