Computer and Internet Fraud
As technology continues to grow by leaps and bounds, so too, do crimes associated with that technology. Local, federal, and state law enforcement agencies have stepped up investigations into computer-related crimes over the past few years, often joining together when computer and Internet crimes cross state lines. The state of Pennsylvania has statutes describing the activities that qualify as computer-related offenses, along with punishments for those crimes.
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Any unauthorized activities related to computer hardware, systems, and networks fall under computer and Internet fraud. Since technology is changing so rapidly, in some cases, the laws are not keeping pace, while in other cases, the laws are changing almost as rapidly. Because of this, it is essential that you have an experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney by your side if you are accused of computer and Internet fraud.
Statistics Regarding Computer and Internet Fraud
According to broadbandsearch.net, the following facts and statistics are the latest on computer and Internet fraud:
- Nearly one-third of all consumers in the United States were affected by a data breach in 2020.
- As many as 30,000 websites are hacked every single day in the United States.
- Almost one-fourth of all Americans have either had their own financial information stolen by hackers or know someone who has.
- On a global level, the cost of cybercrime is more than $10 trillion per year.
What Constitutes Computer and Internet Fraud?
There are many different types of computer and Internet fraud, both in Pennsylvania and across the nation, including the following:
- Disruption of service or interruption of computer services to authorized users—This crime involves violations of both federal and state computer-related crime laws designed to protect authorized users of computers. These are mostly new laws, meaning there is little case law or history associated with these laws. The laws are aimed at hackers—those who may insert a virus into another’s computer system, with the intent to gain illegal or unauthorized access or contaminate the computer, then ask for money to restore it.
- Using a computer in an unlawful manner—When a computer, a network, software, databases, websites, or programs are accessed without legal authorization, then the access is used for illegal or fraudulent purposes, the person accessing the computer could be charged with computer fraud. It is equally illegal to alter the functions of another’s computer without that person’s consent.
- Theft of computer—When an individual illegally gains access to the data on another’s computer, website, database, or network with the intention of taking the data and depriving the owner of the data of its possession, computer fraud may be charged.
- Computer trespass—When an individual accesses another person’s computer without authorization, with the intent of causing a malfunction, removing programs or data, erasing a program or data, altering a program or data, altering a financial instrument, fraudulently creating a financial instrument, or illegally transferring funds electronically, then that individual might be charged with computer fraud.
- Unlawfully duplicating computer information—When an individual intentionally copies data, software, or a computer program from another’s computer without authorization, this is considered a felony computer fraud offense.
- Distributing a computer virus—Some individuals may intentionally distribute or sell programs or software that damage the normal performance of the computer database, website, network, software, or programs. Any effort to destroy, impede, delay, disable or disrupt the normal performance of the database, website, programs, software, or a network via a computer virus is considered computer fraud.
- Transmitting emails in an unlawful manner—This involves the access of another’s computer or network without authorization, with the specific intent of forging or falsifying any information transmitted via email.
- Online child pornography—This crime involves the intentional possession or viewing on a computer of a child that is under the age of 18, engaging in sexual activity.
- Computer phishing—Email messages that impersonate legitimate senders such as banks or employers may steal another’s passwords and account numbers. The goal is to trick specific recipients into sharing their personal data.
- Promotion of “too good to be true” investment opportunities—Every day it seems there is a new scam on the Internet. Unfortunately, far too many people think those scams are real and end up losing sensitive information. Electronic tools can be used to file a false police report on a member of the person’s family, asking for bail money to get that family member out of jail. Senior citizens are particularly vulnerable to these types of scams because they may not be as sophisticated about technology.
- Malware—Malware is malicious software that can inject a virus into an individual’s computer system or even the computer systems of an entire company. Malware, like most technology, has gotten much more sophisticated, often involving ransomware that encrypts and deletes data, then demands payment to restore the data. Malware can also open doors so hackers can launch a full-out attack. It is important that everyone with a computer have solid antivirus and anti-malware software to help defend from hackers.
- Denial of service attacks—Denial of service attacks are more likely to target people and businesses that rely on Internet traffic to do business. A digital attack prevents the owner of the computer from connecting to the internet by overwhelming the system with floods of unwanted data.
- Any computer or Internet crime that:
- Uses false pretenses to obtain confidential information
- Uses false pretenses to obtain personal information
- Alters electronic data
- Creates a fake website to obtain proprietary information or money
- Transmits false or misleading information
- Misleads people to convince them to part with their money
- Intentionally accesses nonpublic computers of government agencies
- Knowingly causes harm or damage to a computer
- Knowingly traffics in passwords or other information, thus making access to a computer possible
Pennsylvania Penalties for Computer and Internet Fraud
While the exact penalty for computer and Internet fraud in the state of Pennsylvania will vary depending on the circumstances surrounding the charges, below are some basics regarding how you could be charged:
- Unlawful use of a computer is a third-degree felony that can result in up to seven years in prison and fines up to $15,000.
- Disruption of service is a third-degree felony that can result in up to seven years in prison and fines up to $15,000.
- Computer theft is a third-degree felony. A conviction could result in up to seven years in prison and fines up to $15,000.
- Unlawful duplication is a third-degree felony, or a second-degree felony if the duplicated material is valued at over $2,500.
- Computer trespass is a third-degree felony that can result in up to seven years in prison and fines up to $15,000.
- Distribution of a computer virus is a third-degree felony that can result in up to seven years in prison and fines up to $15,000.
- Online harassment is a third-degree misdemeanor and can result in up to a year in jail and fines up to $2,500.
- Online stalking is a first-degree misdemeanor that can result in up to five years in prison and fines up to $10,000.
- Unlawful transmission of electronic mail is a third-degree misdemeanor, a first-degree misdemeanor if the damage caused is more than $2,500, or a third-degree felony if the damage is over $2,500 and the act is deemed to be malicious. If the offense is charged as a felony, you could face up to seven years in prison, and fines as large as $15,000.
A prior criminal record, the gravity of the offense, and any enhancing or aggravating factors will be taken into account when charging an individual with Computer and Internet fraud. Offenses like the unlawful use of email and computers, computer trespass, computer theft, and possessing child pornography can bring Pennsylvania punishments of up to seven years in prison and fines up to $15,000. When a criminal act involves computer fraud, the FBI can become involved in the investigation, and the charges can be much more serious. As an example, engaging in online stalking can result in a jail term of up to five years, and fines up to $10,000.
Defenses Against Computer Crimes
The defense used by your Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney will be tailored specifically to you and your unique situation as well as the circumstances surrounding the alleged criminal offense. That being said, there are several common defenses used for computer crimes, including the following:
- Proof of consent—a legal contract to engage in the activities that led to the offense.
- Lack of intent—the prosecution must show you had the intent to commit fraud in order to convict you of the crime. If proving your intent is “fuzzy,” you may be able to have the charges dismissed, or your attorney may negotiate a reduced sentence.
- Permission—If you reasonably believed you had the owner’s permission to engage in the computer activities, then this could be a defense.
If you have been charged with computer and Internet fraud in the state of Pennsylvania, it is important that you speak to a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney as quickly as possible to ensure your rights are properly protected.
Get the Help You Need
You want a team of experienced, passionate federal crimes lawyer that are ready to fight for you. Contact the Ciccarelli legal team today at (610) 692-8700. We serve federal criminal clients throughout Pennsylvania and are convenient to our clients with office locations in Philadelphia, West Chester, Lancaster, Springfield, Malvern, Plymouth Meeting, Lancaster, and Radnor and also available for phone and video meetings. You can have our lawyers provide an honest and thorough evaluation of your case when you call (610) 692-8700 or complete an online contact form to schedule a free, confidential consultation.