We’ve all done it. Lied online, that is. Perhaps you exaggerated a physical trait on a dating website or created a phony profile on Facebook or on another social networking service.
What most people don’t realize is that by doing so, you may have technically breached a contract, which the U.S. government said was a felony back in 1986.
According to somewhat archaic, but current federal anti-hacking law, you commit fraud whenever you access any “protected computer” without authorization. This may include agreeing to a site’s Terms of Service not to break the rules and then creating an online profile with misleading information.
While it’s doubtful the FBI will break down your door to arrest you for lying on your Facebook page, the law exists and is very much enforceable.
What Does The Federal Law Prohibit?
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) under 18 U.S.C. § 1030 was enacted by Congress as an amendment to existing federal law known as the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. This amendment was included to clarify and increase the scope of the law pertaining to the use of computers.
The CFAA covers “protected computers.” These are defined under federal law to mean a computer:
- Exclusively for the use of a financial institution or the United States Government, or any computer, when the conduct constituting the offense affects the computer’s use by or for the financial institution or the Government; or
- Which is used in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce or communication, including a computer located outside the United States that is used in a manner that affects interstate or foreign commerce or communication of the United States.1
Practically speaking, any ordinary computer or other Internet-capable device has come under the law’s jurisdiction due to the interstate and international nature of online communication.
In fact, the U.S. Justice Department has interpreted the law to apply to “just about any Web site.”2 The broad and ambiguous language of this federal anti-hacking law specifically prohibits you from doing the following:
- Knowingly and with intent to defraud, accessing a protected computer without authorization, or exceeding authorized access, and by means of such conduct furthering the intended fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1030 (a)(4)).
How Can You Violate this Federal Law?
You may not believe it, but simply lying after agreeing to the Terms of Services for a particular website may be a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The Terms of Service are those lists of rules you are supposed to read and acknowledge before entering certain websites (in other words, “the fine print”).
For example, some of the Terms of Service for Facebook include:
- “You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission”; and
- “You will not use Facebook to do anything unlawful, misleading, malicious, or discriminatory.”3
Similarly, eHarmony Terms of Service state:
- “By requesting to use, registering to use, or using the Singles Service, you represent and warrant that you are not married. If you are separated, but not yet legally divorced, you may not request to use, register to use, or use the Singles Service … You will not provide inaccurate, misleading or false information to eHarmony or to any other user.”4
If you lie, you may have just violated that website’s terms of service. Now you don’t have authorization. You’ve technically breached your contract with that site and may have committed fraud, according to the CFAA.
What are the Consequences of Violating The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act?
If you are convicted of unauthorized access to a protected computer in violation of federal law under 18 U.S.C. § 1030, you are guilty of a felony. A first offense can be punished by up to five years in federal prison, a maximum fine of $250,000, or by both fine and imprisonment (18 U.S.C. § 1030 (c)(3)(A)).
If you have a prior computer fraud conviction under federal law, your punishment increases to a maximum of 10 years in federal prison and the same fine (18 U.S.C. § 1030 (c)(3)(b)).
Additionally, you can be sentenced to serve a period of supervised release of a minimum of three years for most felony violations of federal law. During this time, a federal probation officer will monitor your activities and strict conditions of release will apply.
Why is Lying on the Internet a Federal Crime?
You probably don’t need to take down your Facebook page just yet. The FBI isn’t going to arrest you for lying about your relationship status. However, if you use a computer to fraudulently obtain someone’s identity, steal money out of a financial account, or hack into a government, university or financial institution computer, or commit other serious types of computer fraud, you may attract the attention of law enforcement and you could be arrested.
A young computer programmer named Aaron Swartz was investigated by FBI agents in 2011 for suspected violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. According to a federal indictment, he used a laptop connected to a networking switch in a controlled-access wiring closet at MIT to download a large volume of academic journal articles. At the time, Swartz was a research fellow at Harvard University.
Aggressive federal prosecutors used the broad language of the CFAA to charge Swartz with 11 federal felony counts of wire fraud, computer fraud and accessing a protected computer without authorization. In all, Swartz was facing up to 50 years in federal prison, $1 million in fines, restitution and supervised release.
On Jan. 11, 2013, two days after federal prosecutors denied his lawyer’s offer of a plea bargain, Aaron Swartz committed suicide by hanging himself in his New York City apartment.
Wallin & Klarich Has Over 30 Years of Experience Fighting Federal Fraud Charges
If you or someone you care about is facing federal computer or other fraud-related charges, you should speak with an experienced fraud crimes defense attorney at Wallin & Klarich immediately. Hiring an attorney from Wallin & Klarich to represent you is your best chance to avoid the severe consequences of a federal conviction, which could lead to decades in prison and enormous fines.
We may be able to get the charges against you reduced. We may be able to get your charges dismissed altogether. Our attorneys at Wallin & Klarich have over 40 years of experience successfully defending our clients charged in the federal court system.
With offices in Los Angeles, Sherman Oaks, Torrance, Tustin, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, West Covina and Victorville, Our attorneys at Wallin & Klarich are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to make certain all of your constitutional rights are protected. We will help you the best result possible in your case.
Call us today at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or (877) 466-5245 for a free telephone consultation. We will get through this together.
1. [18 U.S.C. § 1030 (e)(2)]↩
2. [Slate.com: “Sorry, but lying on your online dating profile might be a federal crime;” http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/07/19/lying_on_facebook_or_eharmony_might_be_a_federal_crime.html]↩