In 2010, Washington, D.C. ranked third on the list of cyber-crime hot spots out of 50 U.S. cities, outranked only by Boston and Seattle. White collar crime is quickly evolving from securities and mail fraud to computer and wire fraud. In this technologically charged era, most white collar offenses are facilitated through the use of interstate computers, and federal law carries particularly heavy penalties for these types of crimes.
The problem with these heavy penalties is that potential sentences coax defendants into entering plea bargains with the government, rather than taking a risk and exercising their constitutional right to a trial by jury with the help of a criminal defense lawyer. When facing 25 years in a federal penitentiary if unsuccessful at trial, defendants opt for the 3 to 5 year plea offer that is on the table instead. Federal prosecutors often "stack" charges, alleging numerous criminal violations in one indictment including computer and wire fraud, money laundering, conspiracy, or even stretch the gambit to press racketeering charges where it may not be warranted. This stacking technique results in exorbitantly high possible sentences and often leaves suspects with nothing but a Hobson's choice to determine their fate, forced to choose with no real options.
Some who are suspected of cyber-crime did not intend to commit a crime at all, but merely used their tech-savvy skills to access a particular network. All it takes is affecting 10 or more computers or more than $5,000 in system repairs for this act to become a felony, and ISP tracing methods make it easy for the feds to locate the person responsible.
Similarly, some executive white collar defendants are charged with crimes that they were unaware of. Most executives trust that their employees will discover and alert them of fiscal anomalies and avoid inappropriate transactions. While the employees may not uncover mix-ups, the federal authorities certainly will and computer networks make it easy to do so.
Mail fraud in the traditional sense rarely occurs anymore. Gone are the days of affixing a stamp to an envelope. Instead, people are using the internet to communicate and mail fraud is quickly being replaced with wire fraud. Where computers are involved in the commission of an offense, inflated federal penalties will accompany criminal charges.
Admittedly, uncountable crimes have occurred when computer hackers both intended to do harm and retrieved data for unscrupulous use. Most recently, the internet retail shoe giant Zappo's experienced a security breach, where a hacker accessed the database and retrieved private information about 24 million consumers. Even in this case, however, the authorities have not located the hacker. As a die-hard optimist, I imagine some brilliant college student testing out new skills and haphazardly accessing this information only to exit the network without saving or using any of the data. Unfortunately, in the eyes of federal law even this act would constitute a felony regardless of an absence of criminal intent, as Zappo's is spending huge amounts of money re-securing their system and addressing the backlash from consumers. In the eyes of the law, the intent to cause damage need not be present, only the intent to access information does.
Computers facilitate so many crimes that a majority of Americans have a legitimate fear of identity theft. In an effort to educate Americans on how to protect themselves, Google launched a nationwide campaign on how to keep internet activity and identity information secure on the web. With more than four billion computers connected to the web, it is no surprise that computer crimes of all shapes and sizes have arisen as a new white collar trend. Likewise, it is no surprise that the feds would institute weighty sentences and strict liability laws to deter such crimes from occurring.
This blog post was written by Rosie Escobar Brown, a law clerk at the law firm Price Benowitz LLP. Founded by David Benowitz, the firm handles criminal, personal injury, and immigration cases. .