U.S. Proposes Stiffer Cybercrime Penalties

In an effort to clamp down on illegal activity on the Web, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) has sent new guidelines to Congress that would more severely punish people who use the Internet to distribute pirated copies of copyrighted material, steal credit cards, or solicit sex with minors.

The USSC acted under a Congressional mandate to recommend federal sentencing guidelines that conform with new legislation designed to get tough on Internet and computer-related crime.

The guidelines for copyright and trademark infringement take effect immediately, while the others will follow suit on November 1st. Unless there is a compelling legal reason not to, judges are required to follow the new guidelines.

Targeting Copyright and Trademark

For violations of the “No Electronic Theft Act,” which cracks down on crooks who use the Internet to violate copyright and trademark laws, the USSC guidelines advocate substantially increased penalties.

The recommended guidelines base piracy sentences upon the number of items counterfeited, as well as the retail value of copyrighted or trademarked goods.

For instance, the cybercrook who makes 200 copies of a $100 (US$) copyrighted item and then sells them for $10 each will receive a sentence based on the value of the original items — $20,000 — instead of the $2,000 actually received for the pirated goods. In this example, the stricter guidelines could result in a 10 to 16 month sentence for a first-time offender, instead of 0 to 6 months.

Cybercriminals who upload thousands of copies of pirated software, “thereby making the software instantly available for downloading by others throughout the world,” would get longer sentences, as would those who are associated with organized crime.

Identity Fraud

With the Internet making it easy for identity crooks to get their hands on credit card and social security numbers, the USSC is recommending that judges be given latitude in imposing sentences if there are multiple victims, if an offender assumes a victim’s identity, if a victim’s reputation suffers, or if a victim is denied a job as a result of a crime.

The USSC is also cracking down on document fraud. According to Commission Chair Diana E. Murphy, “A significant aspect of identity theft often involves the use of ‘breeder’ documents. Essentially, these are illegally obtained documents that are used by an offender to acquire additional fraudulent means of identification.”

Crooks who breed documents could face penalties that are up to 25 percent more severe.

A new way of calculating losses will also mean stricter penalties. Under the old rules, losses per credit card number were set at $100, while the new rules call for the losses to be set at $500 per card, regardless of whether or not a card has been used.

Under the new guidelines, a first-time crook who hacks into a system and steals 1,000 credit card numbers could receive a sentence based on $500,000 in damages instead of $100,000 — 21 to 27 months instead of 10 to 16 months.

Stronger Sentencing for Exploiting Children

The Commission also increased penalties for using the Internet to lure minors to engage in criminal sexual activity and for distributing pornography to minors.

The USSC said it was “particularly concerned about sexual predators who “troll” the Internet (using its anonymity and large number of “chat rooms” intended for children) to contact and sexually exploit children.”

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