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Cyber Crime

Computers As Targets Or Criminal Tools

Computers can be the target of a criminal activity, a storage place for data about a criminal activity and/or the actual tool used to commit a crime (planning criminal activity). One of the most publicized crimes targeting computers involves unleashing a virus through email. A virus is a computer program that disrupts or destroys existing computer systems. A virus spreads rapidly around the world destroying computer files and costing companies and individuals millions in downtime (time when the computers or networks are shutdown). Most viruses are released by hackers as pranks. A hacker is someone who gains unauthorized access to a specific system. Sometimes hackers may target law enforcement or military computers and read or copy sensitive (secret or private) information. Some are concerned that terrorists will unleash viruses to cripple computer systems that control vital transportation networks.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announcing the results of "Operations Cyber Sweep," an international effort to crack down on Internet fraud and cyber crime. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Computers are also targets for thieves to steal important information. Theft of information takes many forms. A frequent hacking crime involves accessing databanks where credit card numbers are stored. The hacker then uses the credit card numbers for purchases or to charge fake services. Hackers also commit theft-of-service crimes, like accessing telephone equipment systems to get free long distance calling.

Some individuals hack into systems to obtain specific information about another person. Medical records or credit history are favored targets. Using the stolen information, a hacker may attempt to extort or threaten the victim with the release of the information. To keep information quiet the hacker demands a monetary payment.

Another common offense involves illegally using copyrighted materials. A copyright gives an author or publisher the sole right to publish, sell, or distribute original material like computer software programs. Copyrighted material is copied from the computer then offered for sale at a low price to anyone willing to pay. Yet another crime targeting computers is known as "denial of service" or in computer language, "mailbombing." Mailbombing was on the increase in the early 2000s and occurs when a targeted site is flooded with massive amounts of email so the site becomes overloaded and crashes. Popular Web sites such as Yahoo.com, eBay.com, and Amazon.com have all been victims.

The second general type of criminal computer use is the storage of unlawfully obtained data such as stolen credit card numbers. Names and addresses of illegal drug purchasers, pornographic files, and stolen information from corporations are just a few examples of the many types of information stored in computers that involve criminal activities. Even if an offender has deleted his illegal computer files, a trained law enforcement computer expert can usually still obtain the deleted information.

The third general way a computer is used in cyber crime is as a tool used to plan or commit an offense. Most any kind of unlawful act can be planned by way of email. Internet criminal activities include fraud, online child pornography, sale of prescription drugs and controlled substances, sale of firearms, gambling, securities (stocks and bonds) fraud, and stealing or copying software and intellectual property.


Page-jacking is another cyber crime that came into common use in the late 1990s and early twenty-first century. Page-jacking involves using the same key words or Web site descriptions of a legitimate site on a fake site. Search engines like Yahoo or Dogpile use these words to categorize and display sites on a specific topic requested by online users. When users type key words into a search engine, the legitimate site appears on a list along with the bogus site. If users click on the bogus site, they are frequently led to a pornographic site. To make matters worse, when users try to close the window or use the "back" or "forward" keys, they are sent to another pornographic site. Users are "trapped," which is why this kind of online rigging is called "mouse-trapping." Users usually have to crash their computers to get out of the page-jacked sites.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCyber Crime - Criminalizing The Internet, Computers As Targets Or Criminal Tools, Page-jacking, Internet Fraud