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Fraud Offences Articles

What happens for a first offence of Computer Fraud?

computer fraud

In England and Wales, computer fraud is considered a very serious crime and individuals facing charges or undergoing prosecution as first-time offenders need to be well-informed. If you or someone you care about finds themselves in this situation, having the right information as early on in the process as possible is paramount. This blog post outlines computer fraud and addresses common questions that arise for first-time offenders.

What is the offence of computer fraud?

Computer fraud is a broad category of offences that involve the use of computers or internet services to commit fraudulent activities. While the term “computer fraud” is not specifically defined in English law, such actions are covered under various pieces of legislation, including the Computer Misuse Act 1990 and the Fraud Act 2006.

Under the Computer Misuse Act 1990, it is an offence to access or modify data stored on a computer without authorisation, or to impair the operation of any computer, where these actions are done with the intent to commit or facilitate the commission of further offences. This can cover actions such as hacking into a computer system to steal personal information or to distribute malware.

In addition, the Fraud Act 2006 can be used to prosecute computer fraud where it involves false representations made by means of a computer. For instance, sending phishing emails or creating fake websites to trick individuals into revealing their personal or financial information would fall under fraud by false representation.

To secure a conviction for computer fraud, the prosecution needs to prove:

  • Unauthorised access or modification. Under the Computer Misuse Act, the defendant must have accessed or modified data stored on a computer without authorisation, or impaired the operation of any computer.
  • Under the Fraud Act, the defendant must have acted dishonestly, meaning that they realised their actions were dishonest by the standards of reasonable and honest people.
  • Intent to commit further offences. Under both Acts, the defendant must have intended to commit or facilitate the commission of further offences through their actions.
  • False representation. Under the Fraud Act, the defendant must have made a false representation, such as by sending a phishing email or creating a fake website.

Penalties for computer fraud include imprisonment, fines, and orders to pay compensation to victims. Both the police and the National Crime Agency actively investigate and prosecute computer fraud cases.

What are some examples of computer fraud?

Examples of this offence include:

  • Investment frauds – where scammers use the internet to promote fraudulent investment schemes. Often these schemes promise high returns for little risk and may use phishing emails or fake websites to seem like a legitimate company or scheme​.
  • Ponzi schemes – where a scammer promises high returns on investments by using the money of new investors to pay the supposed returns to earlier investors. In reality, the scheme has no legitimate business or investment activity​.
  • Internet auction fraud – where the scammer offers an item for sale on an auction site but does not deliver the item after receiving payment, leaving the buyer with no item and no refund or recourse​.
  • Non-delivery of merchandise – where scammers sell merchandise online, often through auction sites or classified ads. The scammer receives payment but fails to deliver the merchandise​.
  • Credit/debit card fraud – where the scammer uses someone else’s credit or debit card information to make unauthorised purchases or withdrawals. The victim is left with the bill for the goods or services​.
  • Computer hacking – where scammers gain unauthorised access to a computer or network, often to steal sensitive information or to cause damage or disruption. The motive is often for their own financial or personal gain​.
  • Phishing/spoofing – where scammers use email or malicious websites to solicit personal, tax, or financial information by posing as a trustworthy organisation. This information can then be used to commit fraud or identity theft​.

What happens if you are suspected of committing computer fraud in the UK?

If you are suspected of committing a computer fraud offence, you could be investigated by the police or other relevant authorities, and the following procedures may be followed:

  • Report and initial assessment. The process typically begins when a victim, witness, or other person reports a suspected fraud to the police. The police then conduct an initial assessment to determine if there is enough evidence to justify an investigation.
  • If the police decide to proceed with the investigation, they may collect evidence, which could include interviewing witnesses, examining physical or digital evidence (like computer systems, emails, and other documents), and potentially carrying out searches or seizures under a warrant. They might also enlist the help of digital forensics experts to analyse complex data or computer systems.
  • Arrest or voluntary interview. If there is enough evidence to suggest you may have committed the offence, the police might arrest you or invite you for a ‘voluntary interview under caution’. During an interview under caution, you will be read your rights, including the right to legal representation, and anything you say may be used in evidence against you. Note that you have the right to remain silent, but if you do not mention when questioned something that you later rely on in court, it may harm your defence.
  • Charge and court proceedings. If the police believe they have enough evidence, they may charge you with the offence. You will then appear in court, where you can plead guilty or not guilty. If you plead not guilty, the case will go to trial.

In some cases, if you are facing an offence for the first time, you may be eligible for a caution instead of prosecution, depending on the nature of the offence and your previous history. A caution is a formal warning given by the police and is generally used for less serious crimes or first-time offenders. It is not a criminal conviction, but it can be used as evidence of bad character if you go to court for another crime.

What is the sentence for computer fraud in the UK?

The exact penalty for computer fraud depends on the legislation used to secure a conviction. Penalties for various offences could include:

  • Unauthorised access to computer material: up to 2 years’ imprisonment.
  • Unauthorised access with intent to commit or facilitate commission of further offences: up to 5 years’ imprisonment.
  • Unauthorised acts with intent to impair, or with recklessness as to impairing, operation of computer: up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
  • Unauthorised acts causing, or creating risk of, serious damage: up to 14 years’ imprisonment, or life imprisonment if the act caused or created a significant risk of severe human illness or death, or serious damage to national security.

When sentencing, the judge will consider factors related to the offender’s culpability and the level of harm caused by the offence. Aggravating factors could include: the offence being part of broader organised crime; it being a repeat offence; the commission of other crimes alongside the offence; and the severe impact on the victims. Mitigating factors could include: it being a first-time offence; the offender showing remorse or attempting to repair the harm caused; good character or exemplary conduct elsewhere; and the offender’s young age or lack of maturity.

If it is determined that the offender is still in possession of items obtained through the fraud, a confiscation order may be made by the Crown Court under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

Will I go to prison if it is my first time committing computer fraud?

This is a difficult question to answer. Computer fraud is very serious and judges are not generally willing to make concessions. That said, first-time offenders possess an advantage simply because the conviction is their very first. First offences are generally considered a mitigating factor in almost all instances. Consequently, irrespective of the sentencing guidelines, the first-time nature of the offence can lead to a reduced sentence, possibly by months or even years.

To understand more about whether a first offence of computer fraud will result in imprisonment, it is advisable to consult an experienced criminal defence solicitor. They can provide unparalleled insights into the typical handling of similar cases, evaluate the strength of your defence, and identify any additional mitigating factors that could impact the final outcome.

Where to get further help

If you or someone you care about is accused of or undergoing a trial for computer fraud,you likely have numerous concerns about what comes next. Early expert legal advice can make a substantial difference in such cases. At Stuart Miller Solicitors, we may potentially be able to secure the dismissal of the case prior to trial, especially for first-time offenders. Reach out to our team today for a free, friendly, and no-obligation consultation.

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