Up until a few years ago, computer crimes did not exist. Only when the internet began to grow into what it is today did the explosion of online criminal activity catch the eye of federal law enforcement. Now, the internet plays a major role in a wide range of criminal offenses.
It should come as no surprise then that “computer crimes” are not a single offense, but a variety of crimes covered by different federal statutes. These crimes can involve anything from fraud to the unauthorized use of another person's computer system.
If you are facing federal computer crimes charges, the potential penalties are steep. If convicted, you could be facing years in federal prison on top of significant financial penalties. Let attorney Vitaly Sigal review your case and advise you of your options.
Understanding Computer Crimes
The blanket term “computer crimes” can apply to a range of state and federal offenses. When it comes to federal law, there are three offenses that make up the bulk of prosecutions. These offenses include hacking, phishing, and fraud. Other crimes, including cyberstalking, are more likely to lead to state-level charges.
The crime of hacking is governed by 18 U.S.C. Section 1030. This offense is defined as accessing the personal data on the computer or network of another person without the permission of the owner. Also known as unauthorized computer access, there are also state-level charges for this offense. A conviction could lead to as much as 10 years in federal prison.
The crime of “phishing” is a form of internet fraud. It involves the use of e-mail or the internet to trick the victim into divulging personal information like a password. Other private data targeted in phishing schemes include:
- Birth dates
- Names, addresses, or phone numbers
- Social security numbers
- Credit card numbers
- Bank account numbers
- Health insurance information
Phishing differs from other forms of fraud in that the perpetrator represents themselves as another party when making contact with the victim. The victim, thinking they are logging into a familiar website or app, provides the private personal information willingly.
While there is technically so such thing as internet fraud, the crime of wire fraud involves the use of the internet to illegally take something of value from another person using false pretenses. There are three elements the prosecution must establish to earn a conviction for internet fraud. They include:
- There was a scheme or plan to commit fraud,
- The defendant had the specific intent to defraud another person, and
- The defendant used electronic communication such as email to perpetrate the scheme.
There is no requirement that the scheme was successful or that the intended victim fell for the ruse. The intentional act intended to defraud the victim is enough to obtain a conviction. If convicted, you could face steep fines, up to 20 years in federal prison, or a combination of the two.
Cybercrimes can occur in many ways. See the examples below for a better understanding of these offenses.
Fred offers a laptop for sale on a popular auction website. However, Fred doesn't own a laptop. He takes photos he has found online to create the listing, where he solicits bids. The winning bidder transfers the money to Fred who keeps the funds and immediately closes his account without ever sending any items to the winning buyer. Fred has committed fraud.
In an effort to steal the private personal information from a list of email addresses she obtained, Jan carefully constructs an email that appears to be from a local bank. The email claims that the person receiving it must log in immediately to change their password for security reasons. When the intended victim attempts to log into the form provided in the e-mail, Jan captures their username and password. She can then access the account on the bank's actual website. This is a form of phishing.
Robert is a hacker. Angry at a bank for refusing to give him a loan, Robert uses his advanced skill to find a back door into the bank's online records. Robert is able to hijack their computer system, locking out users and removing money from accounts. This unauthorized use of the bank's computer systems is a federal offense.
There are several ways to mount a successful defense against allegations of computer crimes. It takes a thorough understanding of federal law to identify a strong defense however, given the range of possible offenses that exist under federal law.
One of the most obvious defenses is that the defendant is innocent. It is possible to mask your identity online, making it impossible in some cases to identify a user. Because of these complexities, it is not uncommon for a person to be implicated in a crime they had no part in. Often, holding the government to their burden of proof and showing their lack of evidence is the best defense.
Another important aspect of all computer crimes is intent. If you lacked the intent to defraud another person or had no knowledge that a fraud was being perpetrated, you do not meet the elements of the offense.
Constitutional violations are also a common issue raised by the defense. Computer crimes require searching of hard drivers and other physical pieces of evidence on most cases. If the police violate your rights while searching or seizing your property, your attorney can have that evidence thrown out at your trial.
Ultimately, your attorney will carefully review your case and advise you on the best defense to pursue. While the choice is yours, your attorney's guidance is vital in obtaining the best possible outcome in your case.
How a Los Angeles Federal Defense Attorney Could Help
While the government may pressure you into a plea following an arrest for computer crimes, it is worth remembering that defeating these charges at trial is possible. If you are facing allegations of computer crimes in Los Angeles, attorney Vitaly Sigal can help. Call the Sigal Law Group right away to schedule your free consultation.