Fraud and deception are nothing new. However, the advent of the internet has allowed for the use of fraud to grow at a staggering pace. Because of the anonymous nature of the internet, many are emboldened to pursue criminal acts they would never dream of in person. Those emboldened often snare innocent persons into their schemes without their knowledge.
Federal prosecutors have made it their mission to address crimes using computers or the internet. This aggressive push has impacted more than fraudulent scammers, with innocent users frequently finding themselves entangled with federal crimes they have nothing to do with. In some cases, computer users that have had their identity stolen in the course of a fraudulent scheme wind up facing arrest.
If you are facing federal charges for computer crimes in Houston, you are entitled to a vigorous defense. Regardless of the circumstances of your case, attorney Doug Murphy is prepared to guide you during this stressful time. An experienced trial attorney, Doug Murphy has taken on the federal government and won. Call right away to learn how he could put that experience to work in your case.
Common Computer Crimes
There is no single federal statute that governs computer-related offenses. Instead, these crimes are governed by a patchwork of federal laws and regulations. Some of the most commonly charged federal computer crimes are briefly discussed below.
Identity theft has long been a major focus of the United States Justice Department. In recent years, the internet has been used both to commit identity theft and to track and arrest persons accused of identity theft. Identity theft generally involves the impersonation of someone else with the intent to commit fraud. Any private identifying information could be used in the crime, including:
- social security numbers
- dates of birth
- usernames, and
- credit card numbers.
The ease of online commerce has led to rampant fraud online. Widespread data breaches are often to blame for the spread of personal information, but fraud can occur in countless ways.
One important thing to consider is that identity theft is a crime of intent. If you have obtained someone else's personal information inadvertently, you have not committed the crime of identity theft.
Examples of Identity Theft
After some easy money online, Ted decides he will use credit card numbers that he has covertly stolen at his grocery store day job to make purchases. Ted will then sell the items and pocket the money. After collecting dozens of credit card numbers, Ted uses them to make online purchases. Unfortunately for him, the online retailer finds the purchases suspicious and notifies law enforcement. Ted is arrested for identity theft before he ever receives the goods or sells them. That is possible given that identity theft occurs the moment an attempt at fraud occurs.
Jake hosts a party with his friend Damien. Jake needs streamers for the party but doesn't have any money. Damien agrees to pay, giving Jake his credit card number. Jake purchases the streamers online using Damien's personal information. The use of personal information is not a crime when it is done with the individual's permission.
Piracy is the informal name for the act of intellectual property theft. Intellectual property includes ideas, expressions, and inventions that belong to a private entity. Piracy typically involves the theft or distribution of music, film, or television programs.
While piracy of intellectual property has always occurred, the internet has allowed for widespread sharing of protected materials. This is especially common with file-sharing websites or software. Due to its prevalence, federal prosecutors have begun to turn their attention to piracy crimes.
Criminal prosecution against individuals in possession of pirated material is rare, as authorities generally treat this as a civil issue. The distribution of pirated material over the internet is a different story. Upon a conviction, you could face up to three years in federal prison for distributing copyrighted material. That penalty increases to five years if you did so with the intention of financial gain.
An Example of Online Piracy
Rob is a movie fan. He has amassed a large collection of movies over the years, most of which are protected by federal intellectual property laws. He digitizes each film and shares them on any file-sharing website he can find. Rob does this not for money but to share his favorite movies with those who cannot afford them. This act could lead to a charge of online piracy. However, since his motives were not financially related he would face a maximum of three years compared to the five-year maximum for those who intended to profit financially.
Generally speaking, hacking involves unlawfully accessing a computer, server, or website that does not belong to you. There are various reasons for hacking, including stealing valuable information or committing fraud. For some, causing havoc is the goal. Hacking can result in the theft of money, financial records, credit card information, or even trade secrets.
There are multiple federal statutes that could apply to hacking in general, but the act is primarily governed by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, codified at 18 U.S.C. § 1030. A conviction could lead to a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances. While simply accessing another person's computer could qualify as a misdemeanor, felony charges are common when the hacking involves the pursuit of financial gain.
A misdemeanor conviction could lead to a year in federal prison, while a felony could lead to up to 10 years in prison and a fine of no more than $10,000. The court could enhance these penalties further if the hacking involved other criminal acts like identity theft.
An Example of Hacking
Bill is a hacker. With the intent to unlawfully obtain credit card information, he opts to hack the website of a local business. Using software, he repeatedly attempts different login passwords until he is able to force his way into the site. After gaining access, he removes the full customer list including their credit card information. This act would result in a felony charge of computer hacking.
Another criminal act governed by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is computer fraud. Computer or internet fraud is a broad concept that involves crimes of deception. This could include a variety of scams that have become commonplace during the internet era. This could also include creating false entries on auction sites in order to steal credit card information or offering a gift in order to convince a person to share their banking information.
Under the statute, a first-time offender could be sentenced to 5 years in prison. For anyone with a previous conviction under the statute, they could face up to 10 years in federal prison.
An Example of Internet Fraud
Frank is engaged in widespread online fraud involving fake investments. His scheme involves e-mailing unsuspecting victims with a business proposal. Posing as a foreign businessman, Frank claims to need a person with an American bank account to cash an international check for him. Frank will then propose that the victim deposits the check into their account, keeping some of it for themselves and writing Frank a check back from their account for the remainder. The victim only later learns that the check from Frank bounced, and he is out the money he “refunded” to him. Frank would be guilty of internet fraud.
Extortion is the act of forcing a person to do something against their will. This can be through the use of threats of violence, embarrassment, or some other form of leverage.
On the internet, extortion cases often involve the use of sexually compromising images. Known as “sextortion,” this act typically involves threatening to release nude or compromising photos of a person unless they do something against their will. This often includes paying money or handing over other valuable forms of property.
There are a number of ways the extortionist could access these photos, but hacking or theft are the most common ways. As such, a person committing extortion can be charged with multiple offenses. A conviction of extortion alone carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. That penalty can increase if the target of the extortion attempt is a minor.
An Example of Internet Extortion
Sally operates dozens of social media profiles in an attempt to ensnare people into extortion schemes. She makes contact with different individuals, pursuing online romantic relationships with them. If she is able to solicit nude photographs or videos from them, she will threaten to release them to the public if they do not pay her. This act would count as internet extortion under federal law. If she committed these acts using another person's identity, she could also face identity theft charges.
Phishing is a unique form of fraudulent activity that occurs via e-mail. In a phishing scam, the perpetrator simulates an e-mail from a well-known official source, like Amazon or Facebook. They use false e-mail addresses and even co-opt the company's logos to make the e-mail appear to be official. Typically, these e-mails will trick the target into entering some form of sensitive personal information, like a password or credit card number.
An Example of Phishing
Todd has carefully developed a phishing scheme aimed at accessing and taking over social media accounts of other people. These accounts can then be used or sold to other people for the purposes of internet marketing. In his scheme, Todd creates an e-mail address that is only one letter different than the website of a well-known retailer. The e-mail identifies itself as official communication from the retailer, and even use the company's logos and trade dress. The goal is to convince the target they need to log into their account and update their credit card information. This not only gives Todd their login information but their credit card as well. Todd has committed phishing, which is essentially a form of identity theft.
By now, most people with e-mail accounts have experienced the hassle of spam. This process, whose name is borrowed from a canned meat product, involves sending unsolicited e-mails. In and of itself, sending an unsolicited e-mail is not a crime. However, there are circumstances where it could rise to a federal criminal offense.
Civil and criminal liability for sending spam e-mails is governed by the CAN-SPAM Act. Formally known as the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act, these rules are typically used by consumers to file civil lawsuits over unsolicited e-mails.
While not as commonly used, the Act does impose criminal penalties. For spam to rise to a criminal act, it typically must involve the use of:
- Hijacking a computer to send unsolicited e-mails;
- Using a fake Internet Protocol address to send unsolicited e-mails;
- Deceiving the receiver of an e-mail by disguising the sender;
- Sending multiple e-mails with false information in the title; or
- Using false information to register accounts to use for sending spam.
While spam might seem minor, these messages are often used as a vehicle for internet fraud. In other cases, they are used to spread illegal pornography. A conviction under the statute could lead to between three and five years in federal prison. This sentence could be extended if fraud was also involved.
An Example of Spam Offenses
Fred makes a living operating various fraudulent schemes online. Through one of his schemes, he uses his understanding of technology to hijack a stranger's computer. Through that computer, he is able to send e-mails soliciting for money for a fraudulent investment without it being directly linked to his own e-mail address or IP address. Not only could this result in a conviction under federal spam laws, but it could also lead to fraud charges.
Defenses to Federal Computer & Internet Crimes
Because the types of computer and internet crimes vary so dramatically, there is no surefire defense that applies to each offense. However, there are specific defenses that could apply across many of these charges. Some common defenses are briefly identified below.
Lack of Evidence
One fundamental defense relies on simply holding the federal government to its burden of proof. In many cases, the prosecutor has little hard evidence to demonstrate that the defendant was responsible or that a crime had even occurred. Sometimes it is best to focus on the failings of the government's case instead of focusing on an alternative story.
A common defense in many computer crimes is authorization. This defense is powerful in cases involving identity theft or hacking. If the alleged victim in the crime authorized the defendant to use their personal information or access their computer system, a jury should acquit the defendant of all charges.
Lack of Knowledge
Cybercrimes like internet extortion and fraud are crimes of intent. This means the defendant must be aware of the criminal actions they have undertaken. If a person mistakenly obtains another individual's identifying information, they are unlikely to be found guilty of an internet crime.
The important thing to remember about this defense is that it will ultimately come down to a test of character for the jury. There is no objective way to prove what most people had in their mind, so a jury could fail to believe a person who genuinely had no idea that they had obtained another person's sensitive data. An experienced federal criminal defense attorney could help a person demonstrate to the jury that they were sincerely unaware of any wrongdoing.
Some people only commit crimes because they are forced to do so. Coercion could lead a person to commit a computer crime due to looming threats of violence, among other things. If a defendant can show that they were coerced, they could avoid a conviction entirely.
Coercion is not always about physical threats. A person could be coerced by financial threats, including the threat of a lost job or income source. What's more, coercion is not always directed at the defendant. A person could feel coerced if threats are made against them or their loved ones. While this defense is rare, it is viable in the right situation.
The Benefits of Hiring The Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C.
Attorney Doug Murphy is a board-certified criminal defense lawyer well-versed in federal law and the penalties that come with violating it. Unlike many state statutes, federal laws are a complex and tangled web. It can be difficult to understand what is at stake with federal crimes due to their complexity. Doug Murphy will carefully review the facts of your case and advise you of the degree of criminal liability you face.
Federal prosecutors understand the stress of taking on the United States Government, and they use that to their advantage. If you attempt to represent yourself in your federal case, these attorneys will apply pressure on you to plead guilty immediately. In many cases, these prosecutors will overstate the evidence against you with the hope that you will take their word for it. Attorney Doug Murphy understands these tactics and is never intimidated by federal prosecutors.
If you are facing federal internet or computer charges in Houston, schedule a free consultation with the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. right away.