Stiff penalties sought for computer crime

Jail time and sentencing terms recommended for credit card and identity theft, using computers to solicit or sexually exploit minors, and violating copyrights or trademarks online.

Adding new teeth to federal laws governing high-tech crime, the U.S. Sentencing Commission on Monday sent Congress guidelines for judges that would substantially increase penalties for crimes such as credit card and identity theft, using computers to solicit or sexually exploit minors, and violating copyrights or trademarks online.

Most of the new standards will take effect on Nov. 1 unless Congress strikes them, which it rarely does. The copyright and trademark provisions take effect immediately because Congress gave the commission authority to act quickly to stem a practice that one trade association estimated costs the software industry $11.4 billion each year.

In some cases, the new guidelines will more than double the sentence for computer and other high-tech crimes.

For example, a pedophile who used the Internet to initiate a sexual relationship with a minor would face 41 to 51 months in prison if the case went to trial. Under current guidelines, a sentence of 18 to 24 months would be imposed, depending on other circumstances.

The new guidelines also are expected to have a significant impact in the prosecution of credit card theft, particularly in cases in which information on many thousands of cards is obtained over the Internet.

Calculations of the amount of loss attributable to a theft will now place a value of $500 on the data for each card stolen, whether or not it was fraudulently used. Currently, data for such cards is valued at $100.

The change will allow prosecutors to sharply increase the amount of the loss attributable to credit card thieves, which is key in determining the sentence.

For example, a thief who stole data on 10,000 credit cards would be considered to have caused $5 million in losses, as opposed to $1 million under current guidelines. That would allow a judge to impose a sentence of 41 to 51 months if the case goes to trial, in contrast to a recommended penalty of 30 to 37 months under current guidelines.

The commission took a similar approach in addressing violation of copyright or trademark using the Internet or other communications technologies.

Under the new framework, the value of stolen software will be calculated based on the retail price charged by the manufacturer rather than the price the pirate put on the stolen goods. In a case where a thief was charging $5 for copies of a computer program that retails for $100, for instance, the losses would be twentyfold higher when the sentence was calculated. That would result in a sentence of 37 to 46 months, in contrast to a eight- to 14-month range under current guidelines.

The guidelines also call for harsher penalties for thieves who upload purloined software so that others can make illegal copies and in cases involving organized crime.

The guidelines also increase penalties by up to 25 percent for identity theft in cases where the criminal was "breeding" documents -- the practice of using stolen identity information to acquire additional forms of false identification or to commit financial fraud. They also allow judges to impose harsher penalties in cases where the criminal assumes the victim's identity or causes substantial harm to the victim's reputation or credit rating.

The recommendations were drafted at the instruction of Congress to bring federal sentencing guidelines in line with new laws intended to crack down on computer- and Internet-related crimes. The new guidelines also include updated sentencing frameworks for other crimes, including methamphetamine trafficking, firearms offenses and telemarketing fraud.

Judges are supposed to adhere to the guidelines unless they find a legally permissible reason to depart from the recommended sentencing range.


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