What Is Electronic Mail Fraud?
Electronic mail remains one of the most common methods of business and personal communication. Compare the number of messages you receive daily in your email inbox with the number of letters in your postal mailbox, and it's clear that for detailed business and personal communications, there are far more emails to deal with than physical letters.
But just as physical letters can be used to defraud, so can emails. Fraudsters disguise emails to make recipients believe the emails have originated from a reliable source, then entice the recipients to provide credit card or other important personal information that the fraudsters use to steal money from the victims. This is commonly known as “phishing,” a word borrowed from computer hackers.
More traditional forms of email fraud happen when someone the victim knows uses emails as part of a larger scheme to defraud the victim, for example, where a trusted business partner sends falsified business records via email or lies about a transaction in an effort to hide illegal activity from the victim.
Other types of email fraud target email service providers and not specific individual victims. In these cases, the perpetrators will disguise the true sources of their emails in an effort to fool spam filters into allowing unwanted promotional emails to be delivered to individual recipients' email inboxes. To do this effectively, perpetrators will sometimes hack into legitimate email accounts and use those accounts without the account owners' knowledge to send their spam emails, or hack into business databases, steal customers' personal information, and use that information to distribute their spam emails.
How is Electronic Mail Fraud Prosecuted at the Federal Level?
One of the most common ways to prosecute fraud that is committed using electronic mail is with the federal Wire Fraud statute. This statute is extremely broad and covers almost any type of email fraud that is part of an effort to steal anything of value from a victim. It includes any transmission of a false statement or promise made by “wire, radio, or television communication” that involves “interstate or foreign commerce” that is part of a “scheme or artifice to defraud.”
The term “wire” in the Wire Fraud statute is interpreted to cover electronic communications such as emails, and because Internet messages travel over a global communications network, an email sent over the Internet is by definition considered to involve “interstate or foreign commerce” even if it is sent by someone to a recipient in the same city.
Wire Fraud applies to almost any situation where electronic mail is used to steal money or property from victims. This includes phishing, where the victim is tricked into providing key personal information to the defendant through a bogus email that pretends to be from a legitimate source. Wire fraud also can apply to fraudulent email correspondence between parties who know each other, where the defendant uses the email to lie to the victim in order to steal money or property from the victim or to deceptively hide illegal activity from the victim.
To prove a violation of the Wire Fraud statute, the government must show that the defendant sent the message or messages “for the purpose of executing” the “scheme or artifice to defraud.” In other words, the government needs to prove that the defendant is the one who sent the electronic mail and that the email was sent with the intent to defraud the victim.
The Wire Fraud statute also applies to unsuccessful attempts to defraud, which means that even a failed effort to defraud a victim can still result in criminal liability.
If a defendant is working with someone else to send electronic mail in an attempt to defraud someone else, the two (or more) of them can be charged with Conspiracy to commit Wire Fraud.
The federal Conspiracy statute covers almost any federal crime and applies when two or more people work together to commit a federal crime, and at least one of those people takes at least one step to make the crime happen.
In addition to Wire Fraud and Conspiracy, there are a wide range of other federal laws that can apply to the fraudulent use of electronic mail. For example, hacking into someone else's email account for any reason, intentionally emailing someone a file that will damage their computer, and stealing and selling passwords are just a few of the computer-related crimes that can involve email.
What Are the Potential Penalties for Electronic Mail Fraud?
Penalties for a conviction under the Wire Fraud statute can be severe and include fines of up to $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for organizations and a prison sentence of up to 20 years. Defendants convicted of Conspiracy can be sentenced to up to 5 years in prison (unless the conspiracy was to commit a misdemeanor, in which case the sentence can be up to one year). And penalties for violating other computer-related crimes can be up to 10 years for a first offense and up to 20 years for a repeat offender.
What Are Some Examples of Defenses to Email Wire Fraud Charges?
Defenses to electronic mail wire fraud charges will, of course, vary depending on the circumstances but can include:
- The defendant's computer or email account was hacked and used without the defendant's knowledge to send the emails covered by the charge
- The victim misinterpreted the emails, particularly where the emails can be fairly construed in an innocent way
- The defendant had no intent to defraud the victim
And, of course, prosecutors must “play by the rules” and only introduce evidence against the defendant that has been legally obtained and meets the tests for reliability and integrity under federal law.
In What Court Will Your Case Be Heard?
If you are charged with a violation of a federal statute, your case will be tried in federal court in New Jersey. There are three federal courthouses in New Jersey, one each in Camden, Newark, and Trenton. If you lose your case at the district court level, you can file an appeal, which is heard by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals located in Philadelphia. Appeals from this court can be heard by the Supreme Court of the United States; however, the Supreme Court only hears a particular criminal appeal if it chooses to do so.
You Need the Help of Experienced Counsel
Facing federal criminal charges is not something you should do alone. If you are being investigated or have been charged with committing a federal crime such as wire fraud, you are in a serious situation and should speak with an experienced federal criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has the knowledge, expertise, and dedication you need to help you defend yourself. Contact the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686 or through our contact form to set up a consultation to learn how they can help you.