Computer use is embedded into the daily lives of the majority of Americans, and with that, extensive time spent online. Both of the use of computer equipment and activities and communications via the internet create opportunities for a wide range of criminal activity. Even though it seems easy to be anonymous when communicating or conducting transactions online, an investigation can reveal the identity of the user and result in criminal charges.
What are Computer Crimes?
Computer crimes are defined by the use of physical computer equipment to commit unlawful behavior. The federal government defines the following acts as computer crimes:
- It is illegal to knowingly access a computer without any authorization, or access information on a computer beyond what the user is authorized. If a computer contains classified information, there are normally security safeguards to protect this information from view. If the security is bypassed by an authorized user, it can prove that the user committed a crime.
- If the defendant has access to a computer within a government division, such as the Department of Defense, they can be charged with a crime if they use the computer to access National Security Information.
- A defendant can also be charged if they know the National Security Information they accessed could be detrimental to the United States or benefit a foreign government.
- It is unlawful to purposely transmit, communicate or retain classified information accessed via computer. If it is suspected the defendant purposely shared the classified information with another party, or copied the information for themselves, they could face an additional charge.
- Computer use can be associated with fraud. If a user accesses a computer without authorization, or goes beyond their authorization intending to commit fraud to obtain anything of value over $5000, they can be charged with a computer crime.
- Extortion charges can also be made if a user threatens to cause damage to a protected computer, or obtain or release protected information in exchange for money or anything of value.
- It is illegal to intentionally cause damage to a protected computer by introducing a virus, malware, or any kind of program or code.
The punishments for federal computer crimes range from up to one year in prison for lesser charges and up to 20 years in prison for more severe charges.
What are Internet Crimes?
Internet crimes specifically refer to illegal activities performed or communicated through online channels. Due to the wide variety and ever-changing nature of financial internet scams, the FBI has created an Internet Crime Complaint Center to gather data and create a task force to prevent and prosecute criminal activity.
The FBI reports on the status of the five most common internet crimes that use scam tactics via the internet to extract payments from their victims.
- Business Email Compromise (BEC). This crime consists of financial scams being carried out through hacking email addresses or impersonating legitimate business email accounts. The scammer uses email communication to request wire payments to fraudulent bank accounts, which are then diverted to cryptocurrency wallets. In the past, these scams were limited to email and requesting items such as W2 information or large amounts of gift cards. Due to the increase of virtual meeting platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic, the scam has moved to these platforms as well and continues to become more sophisticated. Scammers have impersonated company employees using deep fake audio or claiming that their video was not working, and requested wire payments in this fashion.
- Confidence Fraud/Romance Scams. In order to gain access to the victim’s finances, the scammer will create a false online persona and pose as a romantic interest for the purpose of gaining the victim’s trust. The scammer will spend as much time as needed to build a relationship with the victim and appear to be genuinely interested in a romantic future. After establishing trust, the scammer starts to ask for money, with false reasons such as needing medical treatment, a crisis involving family members, or funds to travel to meet the victim that are never realized. The scammer will invent reasons why they cannot meet the victim in person, such as having a job overseas. A romance scam can also include pressure for the victim to invest money, especially in cryptocurrency.
Romance scams can include “sextortion.” After the scammer gains the victim’s
confidence and elicits sexually explicit photos or videos, they threaten to distribute them online unless payment is made.
A confidence scam may also take the form of impersonating a relative, such as a grandchild, having a false financial emergency and asking for money. This scam generally targets elderly people.
- Cryptocurrency Fraud. In addition to cryptocurrency scams in Confidence Fraud cases, cryptocurrency ATMs are ways for criminals to obtain funds from victims due to lax regulations and instant purchases that are likely impossible to reverse. The FBI also reports complaints about cryptocurrency support impersonators, who contact victims claiming there is a problem with their crypto wallet, and convince them to share access to the wallet or transfer the contents to the scammer.
- Ransomware. Scammers use ransomware to extort payment out of the victim by holding their data hostage. Ransomware is a malware that makes data on the victim’s computer inaccessible by encrypting it, and the scammer will demand payment to return access to the data, or threaten to destroy it or distribute it if the payment is not made.
- Tech support fraud. Victims have reported a scam where the criminal poses as tech support for a trusted vendor such as a bank, payment app, or email provider. The scammer will then extract payments out of the victims by requesting wire transfers or directing the victims to purchase gift cards.
Even if your activity was unintentional or subject to misinterpretation, facing a computer crime or internet crime means potential jail time and serious damage to your personal and professional reputation. If you are charged with a computer crime or internet crime, you need an experienced legal team to handle your defense and fight for your rights. Contact us for a free consultation.