Computer crime describes a vast category of offenses. Some are the same as non-computer offenses, such as theft or fraud. The difference is that the criminal uses a computer or the internet to commit the crime. Others, like hacking, are uniquely related to computers.
This article describes computer crimes in detail. It provides examples of computer crimes and explanations of federal laws prohibiting them. It also includes information about how to protect yourself against computer crimes.
Computer Fraud and Abuse Act
As personal computers became more common in the 1980s, so did computer crime. Congress enacted the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) in 1986. This federal law amended 18 U.S.C. 1030. It sought to curb unauthorized access to personal and federal computers and networks.
The CFAA attempts to balance the federal government's interest in preventing computer crime and the states' abilities to punish those crimes. It also criminalized computer-related acts that previous law did not address. For example, it penalizes property theft committed using schemes to defraud computer users.
Congress has amended the CFAA many times since its enactment. Advancing computer technology and computer hacking strategies prompted these amended computer crime statutes. As of 2022, the CFAA penalizes the following computer crimes:
- Obtaining national security information
- Accessing a computer and obtaining information
- Trespassing on a government computer
- Accessing a computer to defraud and obtain value
- Intentionally damaging by knowing transmission
- Recklessly damaging by intentional access
- Negligently causing damage and loss by intentional access
- Trafficking in passwords
- Extortion involving computers
If the government convicts a person of one of these crimes, the prison sentence may range from one to 10 years for a first conviction.
Unauthorized Access of a Protected Computer
Most computer crimes involve the unauthorized access of a protected computer. The CFAA defines these terms, and it is crucial to understand them.
As noted above, the CFAA penalizes specific computer crimes. Several federal crimes require a defendant to use a computer "without authorization." Others need the government to prove the defendant exceeded their authorized access. This generally means using a computer you can access — such as a work computer — for illegal or prohibited activities. The CFAA does not define "without authorization."
A "protected computer" generally means a computer used in:
- Interstate commerce
- Foreign commerce
- Federal government offices
- Financial institutions
But, the CFAA also covers interstate electronic communication. Courts have interpreted this to mean that a protected computer is any computer with internet access. So, almost all computers are "protected computers."
Examples of State Computer and Internet Crimes
Computer crime laws in many states prohibit someone from performing certain acts without authorization. Depending on your state's laws, these types of computer crimes and internet fraud include the following:
- Improperly accessing a computer network
- Modifying, damaging, using, disclosing, copying, or taking programs or data
- Introducing a computer virus or other contaminant into a computer system
- Phishing attempts to obtain financial information or confidential information
- Interfering with someone else's computer access or use
- Using encryption in aid of a crime
- Falsifying email source information for financial gain
- Stealing an information service from a provider
State and federal laws determine the criminal penalties for each offense. Some crimes may be misdemeanors, while others may be felonies. Consider consulting a criminal defense lawyer if you have questions about your state's criminal laws.
Social Networks, Cybercrime, and Internet Sex Crimes
Bullying, sexual harassment, and child pornography are long-standing crimes and societal problems. The internet and social networking sites have introduced a new arena for predators to practice their trade.
Cyberbullying is aggressive harassment that occurs using electronic technology. Such technology may include cell phones, tablets, and computers. Cyberbullies may also use social media sites and chat sites to harass their targets.
Cyberbullying may include the following:
- Sending unwanted, abusive text messages
- Sending unwanted or crude photographs
- Threatening to release another person's personal information
- Spreading defamatory and libelous allegations and rumors
- Creating fake profiles intended to harm victims
Victims may report cyberbullying to parents, network providers, schools, and law enforcement. Cyberbullying may rise to the level of a hate crime — depending on the motivation of the offender — which carries distinct penalties in most states. A hate crime may include extra jail time or a mandatory sentence if connected to another felony.
Child Pornography and Preying on Minors
Child pornographers and child molesters often use the internet to prey on children. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has a task force to catch predators seeking to lure children.
The DOJ has published a Citizen's Guide to U.S. Federal Law on Child Pornography. The guide outlines the applicable federal laws. The Department of Justice also offers more resources on internet safety for children.
As technology becomes more prevalent, more people use their computers to conduct business. This provides more opportunities for computer hacking to affect your life. But you can do certain things to help protect yourself.
First, much of cybercrime is fraud involving the use of a computer. Learn the warning signs of fraudulent behavior and wire fraud. Be extremely careful when giving out sensitive personal information over the internet.
Otherwise, take basic precautions for keeping your data private. Use passwords that are difficult to hack and change them frequently. Don't conduct financial transactions on public computers or over unprotected networks. Installing a good anti-virus program on your computer can prevent cybercrime. Finally, exercise caution in downloading software from disreputable websites. These may contain spyware, viruses, or other malware.
Get Professional Help Defending Against Computer Crime Charges
Computer crimes are the wave of the future, even if they're mostly just new ways to commit old crimes, such as credit card fraud or identity theft. An expert criminal defense attorney can explain your situation and predict your best action. If someone has accused you of cybercrime or computer hacking, contact an experienced defense lawyer.