The definition of what constitutes computer fraud becomes ever more complex with the ingenuity of people who intend to deceive, misrepresent, destroy, steal information, or cause harm to others by accessing information through deceptive and illegal means. Just as individuals have to be careful when they are walking down the street or in their homes when they lock the doors at night, they need to be careful of the many examples of fraud that will make their way onto their computers.
Types of computer fraud vary and can be complex or simple. Simple types of fraud might include the following:
- Sending hoax emails intended to scare people.
- Illegally using someone else’s computer or “posing” as someone else on the Internet.
- Using spyware to gather information about people.
These actions are fraud because they are deliberate misrepresentations of the truth. They progress into more harmful actions as they grow more complex and include the following:
- Emails requesting money in return for “small deposits.”
- Pyramid schemes or investment schemes via computer with the intent to take and use someone else’s money.
- Emails attempting to gather personal information to be used to access and use credit cards or Social Security numbers.
- Using someone else’s computer to access personal information with the intent to use such fraudulently.
- Using the computer to solicit minors into sexual alliances.
- Violating copyright laws by copying information with the intent to sell it.
- Hacking into computer systems to gather large amounts of information for illegal purposes.
- Hacking into or illegally using a computer to change information, such as grades, work reports, etc.
- Sending computer viruses or worms with the intent to destroy or ruin someone else’s computer.
There are many different legal ramifications for those practicing computer fraud, especially when such practice can be shown to be harmful and physically or financially damaging to others. Most laws make the distinction between a person who knowingly commits fraud and someone who does so accidentally. For instance, passing on a hoax letter about a potential virus is a common trait among new computer users, and isn’t really fraudulent. Deliberately generating a hoax letter to scare others is fraud with the intent to at least emotionally harm others. Generally, when a person has intentionally committed a fraudulent act with a computer, they can be subject to both criminal and sometimes civil prosecution, and at minimum they will pay fines if they’re convicted of minor fraud. People who steal information or money with a computer, either directly or through fraudulent means, can face jail time and large fines.
Even though there are stiff penalties for committing computer fraud, laws governing against it may be difficult to enforce. Some of the email scams for investment opportunities and get rich quick schemes originate outside of the country where the victims are, and it may be difficult to instigate investigations on foreign soil. Computer users should be wary and commit to the following computer philosophy when they on the Internet:
- Users should not give personal information to anyone or to any company they have never heard of before. This includes the person's full name, address, phone number, credit card number, Social Security number, or information about the people in the household.
- Individuals should not pay attention to get rich quick schemes. If they seem too good to be true, they absolutely are.
- Email users should not open messages from strangers. Everyone should install antivirus software and spam blocking programs.
- People should never download attachments from people they don’t know.
- Children should be taught about safe communication on the Internet to protect them from predators.
- Individuals should not keep passwords on their computer, and they should not use common passwords like the names of kids, birthdays, or other guessable words. No one should ever give a password to someone else.