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Fraud Offences Articles

What Happens for a First Offence of Online Fraud?

computer fraud

If you or someone you know faces a first online fraud charge, feeling anxious and eager to start your defence is understandable. Online fraud is prevalent in the UK, with over 4 million incidents reported on average each year, according to UK Finance. As a result, it is an offence sternly addressed by UK courts and engaging an expert cybercrime defence solicitor is highly recommended. This article explains the offence of online fraud, provides examples, discusses sentencing of first-timers, and analyses imprisonment risks. We also outline how to get in touch with our team for robust legal assistance if you find yourself facing such an allegation.

What is the offence of online fraud?

Online fraud is an offence under the Fraud Act 2006 and Computer Misuse Act 1990 in English law. It involves using the internet to dishonestly obtain money, data, or other benefits through deception.

Online fraud is not, in and of itself, a specific offence. Rather, it is a term used to describe the type of fraud being committed. Fraud Act 2006 offences relevant to online fraud include fraud by false representation and fraud by failing to disclose information when dealing with online transactions. The Computer Misuse Act 1990 criminalises unauthorised access to or modification of computer material.

To prove online fraud, the prosecution generally must show:

  • The defendant made false representations or failed to disclose pertinent information in an online environment.
  • They acted dishonestly with intent to cause loss to another or make a gain for themselves.
  • Their conduct involved misuse of computers or the internet.

Online fraud carries penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment and the seriousness of the offences and the technical complexity of actions that often lead to allegations of online fraud mean prosecutions most often occur in the Crown Court. Sentencing considers factors like the level of sophistication exhibited, the harm caused, and the amount defrauded.

What are some examples of online fraud?

Examples of this offence include:

  • Phishing – emails pretending to be from legitimate sources to steal personal data and account details.
  • Romance scams – building fake online relationships to trick victims into giving money.
  • Tech support scams – claiming your computer has a virus and charging to install useless software.
  • eCommerce scams – setting up fake online stores to take payment but never fulfil orders.
  • Advance fee fraud – requesting upfront payments for loans, investments, or prizes that never materialise.
  • Fake charities – soliciting donations through websites and social media for non-existent causes.
  • Identity theft – hacking accounts and pretending to be someone else online to access funds and data.
  • Click fraud – using bots or scripts to artificially generate clicks on online ads to generate revenue.
  • Subscription traps – luring customers using free or low cost trials and then repeatedly billing them.
  • Manipulating reviews – paying for or posting fake reviews to boost or denigrate brands online.
  • Online auction fraud – not delivering items sold through online auction platforms after receiving payment.

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

If you are suspected of online fraud in the UK, you are likely to face investigation and potential prosecution under laws like the Fraud Act 2006 and Computer Misuse Act 1990.

Here’s a general outline of what could happen:

  1. Initial investigation – if online fraud is suspected, the police or relevant authority will initiate an investigation. This may involve examining digital records, account activity logs, device data and other evidence. You may be interviewed under caution where anything you say could be used as evidence later. Having a solicitor present is advisable.
  2. Arrest or voluntary interview – you could be arrested or asked to voluntarily attend an interview at a police station. Even if voluntary, this is serious and may result in charges. Legal representation is recommended.
  3. Charging decision – after investigating, authorities will consult the Crown Prosecution Service on whether to charge you. They will consider if there is sufficient evidence and if it is in the public interest.
  4. Court process – if charged, your case may be tried in the Magistrates’ Court or Crown Court before a jury.
  5. Sentencing – if convicted, the court will consider various factors when deciding your sentence. While maximum penalties depend on the offence, non-custodial sentences are possible for first offences depending on circumstances. Potential options include fines, community service, or suspended sentences.

The exact charging and prosecution process you will face depends on your specific situation, so it is always best to seek the advice of a qualified and experienced online fraud solicitor if you are worried about next steps.

What is the sentence for online fraud in the UK?

Online fraud is a growing problem prosecuted under the Fraud Act 2006 and Computer Misuse Act 1990. Common scams involve phishing emails, fake websites, online auction/shopping fraud, romance scams, and computer hacking – all of which harm the public confidence in Internet use as well as causing considerable levels of financial and emotional harm, which is why courts are so keen to impose hefty sentences for offenders. Under the Fraud Act 2006, the maximum sentence for online fraud is 10 years’ imprisonment.

Aggravating factors that can increase sentences include very large scale frauds, sophisticated hacking or malware, targeting vulnerable groups like the elderly, being part of an organised crime gang, and significant harm caused to victims. Mitigating factors may include showing remorse, making amends, naivety or immaturity of the offender, and pleading guilty early on.

Other penalties can include cybercrime prevention orders, confiscation of assets through the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, and directors being disqualified for company frauds.

Are there any defences to online fraud?

Here are some potential defences that can be raised in response to allegations of online fraud:

  • Lack of intent – the prosecution must prove that you had dishonest intent and willfully engaged in fraudulent activities online. If you can demonstrate that you had an honest belief, made a mistake, or lacked the intention to deceive or defraud others online, this could provide a defence.
  • Insufficient evidence – skilled defence lawyers will carefully evaluate the strength of the prosecution’s evidence, looking for inconsistencies, unreliable witnesses, or gaps in the evidence chain. Challenging the sufficiency of evidence and raising reasonable doubt can be an effective defence strategy.
  • Lack of knowledge or involvement – if you can show that you were unaware of the fraudulent nature of the online activities or were misled by others, this may serve as a defence. It is important to establish that you had no knowledge or active participation in the fraudulent actions.
  • Mistaken identity or unauthorised use – if you can demonstrate that you were mistakenly identified as the perpetrator of online fraud or that your identity was stolen or used without your knowledge, this can be a valid defence. Providing evidence to prove your innocence and showing that you were not involved in the fraudulent actions can support this defence.
  • Coercion or duress – if you can demonstrate that you were coerced or under duress to engage in online fraud, this may serve as a defence. It is crucial to establish that the coercion was immediate or imminent and that you had no reasonable alternative.
  • Technological vulnerabilities or hacking – if you can demonstrate that your online accounts or devices were compromised by hackers or that you were a victim of cybercrime yourself, this can be a defence, as it shows you were not in control of your online activities.

Online fraud is a very serious offence with significant legal and societal implications. If you are facing allegations of online fraud, seeking immediate legal advice from an experienced online fraud lawyer is essential to understand the specific defences available to you and to navigate the legal process effectively.

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

It is hard to know whether a first time online fraud offence would automatically result in imprisonment, as courts consider numerous factors when sentencing and cases are so different. The sophistication and scale of the scam is a key consideration – large-scale deceptions are viewed less sympathetically than opportunistic individual acts. The losses caused to victims and public confidence in online security will also be weighed, with substantial harm increasing custody chances. Mitigating factors like youth, naivety, remorse and admitting guilt early on may assist first-time offenders in arguing against prison.

That said, aggravating factors like high levels of planning, involvement in wider organised crime, or trying to conceal the fraud point towards harsher sentences. While minor one-off scams may lead to suspended terms, judges are generally unwilling to avoid custody for deliberate large-scale deception given the seriousness.

Anyone facing prosecution should obtain expert legal advice on the realistic prospects of imprisonment based on precedents for comparable cases. An experienced fraud defence solicitor can present mitigation arguments that could mean you avoid prison time.

Where to get further help

If you or a loved one is facing online fraud charges, specialist legal advice from the very start can make a major difference. We may even be able to get your case dropped before it reaches trial. Contact the team at Stuart Miller Solicitors today for a free initial consultation.

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