High-tech crimes

High-tech crimes are a new breed of white-collar offenses that can be singular or ongoing and typically involve the theft of information, resources, or funds. High-tech crimes cost consumers billions of dollars each year and will most likely increase dramatically in the years to come. Millions of people use the Internet daily in the United States and Canada alone, and the number entering cyberspace is growing rapidly. Criminal entrepreneurs view this vast pool as a target for high-tech crimes.

In a number of highly publicized cases adults have solicited teenagers in Internet chat rooms. Others have used the internet to sell and distribute obscene material, prompting some service providers to censor or control sexually explicitly material. Selling pornographic material on the Internet is just one method of its illegal use. Bogus get rich quick schemes, weight loss scams, and investment swindles have been pitched on the Internet. In some cases these fraudulent acts can actually be dangerous to clients.

Enforcing the law on the Internet can fall to a number of different agencies. The Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Trade Commission, Secret Service, and state attorney general’s offices have all assigned personnel to be cyber cops. In 1996 the federal government passed the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which proscribes the use of a computer to provide minors with indecent material as well as the knowing use of a computer to intentionally harass the recipient of communication (Raskin & Schaldach-Paiva, 1995).

Some civil liberty groups consider this law tantamount to censorship, and suits have been filed in federal court requesting clarification of its provisions; so far the Justice Department has suspended enforcement until the cases have been settles. Computer related thefts are a new trend in employee theft and embezzlement. The widespread use of computers to record business transactions has encouraged some people to use them for illegal purposes. Computer crimes generally fall into one of five categories: Theft of services, in which the criminal uses the computer for unauthorized purposes or an unauthorized user penetrates the computer system.

Included within this category is the theft of processing time and services not entitled to an employee; Use of data in a computer system for personal gain; Unauthorized use of computers employed for various types of financial processing to obtain assets; Theft of property by computer for personal use or conversion to profit; or Making the computer itself the subject of a crime such as when a virus is placed in it to destroy data (Swanson & Terriot, 1980).

Although most of these types of crime involve using computers for personal gain, the last category typically involves activities that are motivated more by malice than by profit. When computers themselves are the target, criminals are typically motivated by revenge for some perceived wrong; a need to exhibit their technical prowess and superiority; a wish to highlight the vulnerability of computer security systems; a desire to spy on other people’s private financial and person information called computer voyeurism; or a philosophy of open access to all systems and programs (Branscomb, 1990).

Several common techniques are used by computer criminals. In fact, computer theft has become so common that experts have created their own jargon to describe theft styles and methods. The first is the Trojan horse and with this one computer is used to reprogram another for illicit purposes. Another is the salami slice which is when an employee sets up a dummy account in the company’s computerized records. A small amount, even a few pennies, is subtracted from customer’s accounts and added to the account of the thief. Even if they detect the loss, the customers won’t complain.

The pennies picked up here and there eventually amount to thousands of dollars in losses. With super-zapping, most computer programs used in business have built-in antitheft safeguards, but employees can use a repair or maintenance program to supersede the antitheft program. The logic bomb is a program that is secretly attached to the company’s computer system. The new program monitors the company’s work and waits for a sign of error to appear, some illogic that was designed for the computer to follow. Illogic causes the logic bomb to kick into action and exploit the weakness.

The way the thief exploits the situation depends on their original intent, such as theft of money or defense secrets, sabotage or the like. The impersonation is when an unauthorized person uses the identity of an authorized computer user to access the computer system. And the data leakage is when a person illegally obtains data from a computer system by leaking it out in small amounts (Swanson & Terriot, 1980). The different type of computer crime involved installing a virus in a computer system. A virus is a program that disrupts or destroys existing programs and networks.

All too often this high-tech vandalism is the work of hackers, who consider their efforts to be pranks. An accurate accounting of computer crime will probably never be made because so many offenses go unreported. Sometimes company managers refuse to report the crime to police least they display their incompetence and vulnerability to stockholders and competitors (Larson, 1985). In other instances, computer rimes go unreported because they involve low-visibility acts such as copying computer software in violation of copyright laws. As computer applications become more varied, so will the use of computers for illegal purposes.

The growth of computer-related crimes prompted Congress to enact the Counterfeit Active Device and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (amended in 1986). This statute makes it a felony for a person to illegally enter a computer to gain $5,000 to cause another to lose & 5,000, or to access data affecting the national interest. Violating this act can bring up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Repeat offenders can receive 10 year prison sentences and a fine of $100,000. In 1994 the Computer Abuse Amendments Act was passed to update federal enforcement efforts (18 U. S. C. Section 1030).

This statute addresses six areas of computer-related abuses, including obtaining information related to national defense or financial records, or using a federal interest computer to defraud, obtain something of value, or destroy data. The 1994 Act criminalizes reckless conduct, which means that hackers who plant viruses will now violate federal law (Branscomb, 1990). In addition to the Computer Abuse Act, people who illegally copy software violate the Criminal Copyright Infringement Act, which punishes copying and distribution of software for financial gain or advantage.

Computer crime may also be controlled by other federal statutes, including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (Raskin & Schaldach-Paiva, 1995), which prohibits unauthorized interception of computer communications and prohibits obtaining, altering or preventing authorized access to data through intentional unauthorized access to the stored data. The act is designed to prevent hackers from intercepting computer communications and invading the privacy of computer users. Reference: Branscomb, A. (1990).

“Rogue computer programs and computer rogues: Tailoring punishment to fit the crime”, Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal, 16, 24-26. Larson, E. (1985, January 14). “Computers turn out to be valuable aid in Employee crimes”, Wall Street Journal, p. 1. Raskin X. & Schaldach-Paiva, J. (1995). “Computer crimes”, American Criminal Law Review, 33, 541-573. Swanson, M. & Terriot, J. (1980). “Computer crime: Dimensions, types, causes and investigations”, Journal of Political Science and Administration, 8, 305-306.