Computers and the internet have ingrained themselves as such an indelible part of modern society that it isn't surprising how often they're used to commit crimes. Computer and internet crimes run the gamut from identity theft to computer fraud and computer hacking. States and the federal government have laws that criminalize various types of behavior involving computers, computer systems, and the internet, and each has its own requirements and potential penalties.
There are a number of offenses which can fall under the category of “computer crime.” Any crime that either targets a computer, or in which someone uses a computer to commit a crime, falls into this category. State computer crime laws differ widely, and when a person uses a computer to commit a crime, that crime may be covered under several different state or federal laws.
- Unlawful use or access. Some states have laws that make it a crime to use or access a someone else's computer without permission or authority. This type of crime includes instances where a person physically accesses someone else's computer, gains access electronically, or uses a virus to gain access. These laws are often used in computer hacking cases where someone gains access to someone else's computer without permission.
- Access for fraudulent purposes. Other states have laws that punish using a computer to accomplish a fraudulent act. Some states, for example, make it a crime to use a computer, computer software, or computer network to fraudulently obtain goods or services of any kind.
- Data theft. Even if you're allowed to use or access a computer, you can still commit a computer crime if you access, copy, damage, or alter information you don't have permission to use. Some states provide additional penalties in cases where the data theft resulted in damage, while less severe penalties apply for thefts which did result in data being damaged, altered, or destroyed.
- Child pornography. It's a crime to make, possess, or transmit images that portray child pornography. All 50 states, as well as the federal government, have laws which prohibit keeping pornographic images of children. There are also laws which prohibit transmitting harmful materials to children. “Harmful materials” include sexual or pornographic images that may be legal for adults to view, but which are harmful to, or inappropriate for, children.
While computer crimes cover a wide range of activity, internet crime laws punish activity that specifically involves the internet in some way. These laws apply to emails and websites, as well as using the internet to commit identity theft or other forms of fraud. Like computer crimes, both individual states and the federal government have laws that apply to internet crime.
- Luring or soliciting children. Nearly all states have laws that make it a crime to use the internet to solicit, lure, or entice a child to engage in a sexual act. These laws apply when a person aged 18 or older uses the internet to communicate with a child. The age limit of a child for the purposes of these laws is usually 16. However, a person can violate these laws as long as they believe the person they're talking to is 16 or younger, even if the person is actually an adult.
- Harassment, stalking, and bullying. Various states have enacted laws which criminalize using the internet to stalk, harass, or make criminal threats against someone. State stalking laws typically require that the threats made must be credible, but a state's harassment laws may also punish internet communications intended to threaten or harass even if the threat is not credible. Recently, some states have enacted cyber bullying laws which criminalizes harassment aimed specifically towards minors.
- Other laws and new laws. There are any number of federal and state crimes that may also apply in computer and internet criminal cases. Federal wire fraud, for example, can apply to any case where a person uses a computer or electronic communications device to fraudulently deprive someone else of property. As computers and the internet continue to change and proliferate, legislatures regularly introduce new criminal laws which apply to internet and computer use.
Because there are numerous different types of computer and internet crimes, there are also a wide range of potential penalties. Some computer crimes have minor penalties associated with them, while more serious crimes can impose significant fines and lengthy prison sentences.
- Fines. Fines for a conviction of various computer and internet crimes range widely. A misdemeanor conviction can result in relatively minor fines of a few hundred dollars, and possibly up to a $1,000 or more, while felony convictions can have fines that exceed $100,000.
- Jail or prison. A person convicted of certain internet or computer crimes may also face a jail or prison sentence. The most serious crimes, such as possessing child pornography, can result in a prison sentence of 20 years or more.
- Probation. Probation sentences for computer crimes are also possible as either individual penalties or in addition to jail or fines. Probation terms can differ widely, but typically last at least one year and require the person on probation to not commit more crimes, maintain employment, report to a probation officer, and pay all court costs and fines.
Talk to an Attorney
Being accused of a computer or internet crime is very serious. Even if you're never convicted you can lose your job and suffer the stigma of being an accused criminal. Computer and internet crimes can be very complicated, involving numerous laws, evidentiary issues, and extensive government investigations. Anytime you're charged with a computer crime you face the vast resources of the state or federal government. Your best defense against those powers is to find a qualified, experienced criminal defense attorney in your area. Whether you're facing state or federal criminal charges, a local defense attorney will be able to provide you with legal advice based on the facts of your case and the law. You need an attorney who has knowledge of the local courts, police, and prosecutors, and who can help you at every stage of your case.