What types of computer crimes are the most serious?

types-of-computer-fraudThe purpose of the article is to provide individuals accused of a computer crime with basic practical information including, charges, penalties and possible defenses. It has also been designed to give an overview for readers who are interested in the subject. It is not intended as a substitute for qualified legal counsel. It is not legal advice.  The information is by no means an exhaustive inventory of all of the possible types of computer crimes that fall into the category of computer crimes.


There are many potential illegal activities that involve the use of computers. As advances in technology progress so does the sophistication of the perpetrators. According to the FBI, in the year 2000, eighty five percent of surveyed businesses stated that they had been a victim or criminal activity through the use of computers. The types of computer crimes and be broken down into two categories: crimes that target computers or networks and crimes that are facilitated by the use of a computer. The individual must “willfully” or “knowingly” commit the acts to satisfy the intent element of the crime.

Crimes that are committed against computers or computer networks include the sending out of computer viruses. Viruses infect your machine by attaching themselves to programs, files, and start-up instructions. Hacking or cracking is unauthorized access to or modification a computer, program or software. Again the intent is to vandalize, destroy programs or data. Spamming is the sending of unsolicited emails and bulk messages indiscriminately resulting in slower computer or server performance and the appearance of prank emails. A denial of service attack occurs when an internet server is flooded with a nearly constant stream of non-legitimate requests for web pages, thereby denying other users an opportunity to download a page and also possibly crashing the web server.

Many computer crimes are committed with the intent to engage in some form of illegal activity through the use of the computer and more precisely the internet. Phishing involves the use fictitious e-mails and websites which are designed to deceive recipients into revealing personal information such as credit card numbers, account usernames and passwords and social security numbers. By imitating trusted sites phishers are able to convince up to five percent of recipients to respond to them according to U.S. Department of Justice. Computer fraud is the act of using a computer to commit a deception in order to secure unfair or unlawful gain. Cyber stalking is an activity in which a “cyber stalker” follows a victim’s online activity to gather information, threaten or to arrange “real life” contact or generally harass a victim. Identity theft is similar to fraud in that someone steals the identity of another by using their credit card, drivers’ license, social security or other personal identification numbers. When creating a new identity, the perpetrator uses the information to open new accounts. With capture identity theft, the perpetrator uses the information to access existing accounts and makes fraudulent transactions. Cyber terrorism in general, can be defined as an act of terrorism committed through computer resources to incite actions of political groups and carry out terrorist threats. Internet child pornography, and the distribution of it, is one of the most targeted activities for investigation by both federal and state law enforcement agencies. A similar crime is that of the online predator who is an adult internet user who exploits vulnerable teens, usually for sexual or other abusive purposes.

Offenders are caught through a variety of methods. Undercover sting operations and reporting from internet service providers are the most effective. Tips from the public or reports from consumers are an effective source of information. The federal government strives to keep up with the latest technology to keep a step ahead of fraudulent computer use.

The FBI and the Secret Service investigate computer crimes that involve interstate issues such as homeland security, banks, brokerages and the stock market. If a person intentionally access a computer system in order to profit or gain access to information that is otherwise restricted the penalties range from one year in prison for just accessing the computer to life imprisonment or the death penalty if a death or threat to national security occurs.

State sentences vary based on the nature of the crime and the amount of “damage” that ensues. Penalties range from misdemeanors to include one year or less in jail to harsher sentences for more severe crimes including life imprisonment in some states.

Defending certain types of computer crimes is possible but becomes increasing more difficult as the charges become more severe. Many defendants agree to a plea bargain, which basically amounts to pleading guilty to a lesser offense; this is especially true if the accused can lesser their charges from federal to state statues. Another strategy involves the intent offense. If for example, a person is charged with a computer crime such as cyber stalking, a possible defense would be that the accused had no intention of stalking a victim and thought that their communication was merely a method to communicate with the victim thereby lacking the intent to commit the crime.

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