“Internet crimes” is a blanket term that is used to define a variety of crimes that are carried out over the internet. These crimes typically involve stealing a person’s identity or other information or corrupting computer systems. There are different laws on the state and federal levels, each of which carries a different set of potential penalties.
There are a variety of types of fraud situations that can result in a criminal prosecution, including:
- Not delivering merchandise sold over the internet
- Charging an advance fee for a car or other “prize” and then not delivering the prize
- Conducting a lottery scam
- Promising work-from-home but only collecting the participants’ money
- Selling fake merchandise online
Typically, fraud involves using deception to get a benefit, typically money.
Under federal law, it is illegal to devise a scheme to defraud another person by using false pretenses.1 If convicted of this crime, a person can face up to 20 years’ imprisonment and be fined.2 If the crime was committed during a presidentially declared major disaster or emergency, the maximum term of imprisonment is 30 years.3
Another common internet crime is phishing. This crime typically involves sending an email, attachment, or other communication to an internet user in order to get personal or confidential information from that person. This crime is defined and penalized differently under state and federal law.
California law makes it illegal to do any of the following with another person’s personal identifying information without their consent:
- Using it for any unlawful purpose
- Acquiring it with the intent to commit fraud
- Selling or transferring it or providing it with the intent to commit a fraud or knowing that it will be used to commit fraud4
If the crime involves phishing for a person’s credit card numbers, a separate charge for larceny may be made.7 This crime involves any of the following actions related to a stolen credit card number without the owner’s consent:
- Selling, transferring or conveying it with the intent to defraud8
- Acquiring the information of four or more people in a year with reason to know this information was obtained illegally9
- Acquiring or possessing the information with the intent to defraud and with intent to use, sell, or transfer it to someone else10
- Acquiring it or possessing the information with the intent to use it fraudulently11
- Using it to obtain anything of value with intent to defraud while possessing the information unlawfully12
Penalties for these offenses depend on the value of the goods or services stolen through illegal means. If the offense is considered grand theft, it can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony with possible terms of imprisonment of one year, 16 months, two years or three years.13 If the crime is considered petty theft, it is usually charged as a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of six months in a county jail and a fine of $1,000.14
Additionally, California law provides the victim or the California Attorney General with the right to sue for damages up to $1.5 million.15
Phishing for someone’s personal identifying information or credit card information can also be charged as a federal offense. It is prohibited to transfer, possess, or use by email or other electronic communication someone else’s means of identification with the intent to commit a federal crime or state felony.16 If you are convicted of this offense, you can face up to 15 years imprisonment for your first offense.
You can face charges for federal credit card fraud if you knowingly and with the intent to defraud do any of the following:
- Traffic in or use one or several unauthorized credit card numbers and obtain anything of value worth $1,000 or more in a 12-month period
- Possess 15 or more unauthorized credit card numbers
- Engage in transactions using other people’s credit card numbers to obtain anything of value worth $1,000 or more in a 12-month period17
Penalties for this offense are up to 10 years for a first offense.
1 18 U.S. Code § 1343 – Explains that “Whoever, having devised or intending to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises, transmits or causes to be transmitted by means of wire, radio, or television communication in interstate or foreign commerce, any writings, signs, signals, pictures, or sounds for the purpose of executing such scheme or artifice” is guilty of the crime of fraud.
4 California Penal Code 530.5(a) – “Every person who willfully obtains personal identifying information, as defined in subdivision (b) of Section 530.55, of another person, and uses that information for any unlawful purpose, including to obtain, or attempt to obtain, credit, goods, services, real property, or medical information without the consent of that person, is guilty of a public offense.”
5 California Penal Code 530.5(a) – Says that a person who is found guilty under this code “shall be punished by a fine, by imprisonment in a county jail not to exceed one year, or by both a fine and imprisonment, or by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.”
6 California Penal Code 1170(h)(1) – “Except as provided in paragraph (3), a felony punishable pursuant to this subdivision where the term is not specified in the underlying offense shall be punishable by a term of imprisonment in a county jail for 16 months, or two or three years.”
7 See California Penal Code 484e
8 California Penal Code 484e(a) – “Every person who with intent to defraud, sells, transfers, or conveys, an access card, without the cardholder’s or issuer’s consent is guilty of grand theft.”
9 California Penal Code 484e(b) – “Every person, other than the issuer, who within any consecutive 12-month period, acquires access cards issued in the names of four or more persons which he or she has reason to know were taken or retained under circumstances which constitute a violation of subdivision (a), (c), or (d) is guilty of grand theft.”
10 California Penal Code 484e(c) – “Every person who, with the intent to defraud, acquires or retains possession of an access card without the cardholder’s or issuer’s consent, with intent to use, sell, or transfer it to a person other than the cardholder or issuer is guilty of petty theft.”
11 California Penal Code 484e(d) – “Every person who acquires or retains possession of access card account information with respect to an access card validly issued to another person, without the cardholder’s or issuer’s consent, with the intent to use it fraudulently, is guilty of grand theft.”
12 California Penal Code 484g – “Every person who, with the intent to defraud, (a) uses, for the purpose of obtaining money, goods, services, or anything else of value, an access card or access card account information that has been altered, obtained, or retained in violation of Section 484e or 484f, or an access card which he or she knows is forged, expired, or revoked, or (b) obtains money, goods, services, or anything else of value by representing without the consent of the cardholder that he or she is the holder of an access card and the card has not in fact been issued, is guilty of theft. If the value of all money, goods, services, and other things of value obtained in violation of this section exceeds nine hundred fifty dollars ($950) in any consecutive six-month period, then the same shall constitute grand theft.”
13 See California Penal Code 489.
15 See California Business & Professions Code 22948.
16 18 U.S. Code § 1028 – ((a) Whoever, in a circumstance described in subsection (c) of this section– . . . (7) knowingly transfers, possesses, or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, or in connection with, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of Federal law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable State or local law;. . . shall be punished as provided in subsection (b) of this section. . . . (c) The circumstance referred to in subsection (a) of this section is that–(1) the identification document, authentication feature, or false identification document is or appears to be issued by or under the authority of the United States or a sponsoring entity of an event designated as a special event of national significance or the document-making implement is designed or suited for making such an identification document, authentication feature, or false identification document; (2) the offense is an offense under subsection (a) (4) of this section; or (3) either– (A) the production, transfer, possession, or use prohibited by this section is in or affects interstate or foreign commerce, including the transfer of a document by electronic means; or (B) the means of identification, identification document, false identification document, or document-making implement is transported in the mail in the course of the production, transfer, possession, or use prohibited by this section.”)
17 See 18 United States Code § 1029.