This week, the Department of Justice announced in a press release that an international law enforcement operation, Operation Wire Wire, resulted in the arrest of 74 individuals, including 42 people in the United States. The government is accusing these people of committing “cyber-enabled fraud” by sending misleading emails to businesses and individuals that trick them into sending money or confidential information.
Known to many as “spear-phishing,” what the government refers to as “business email compromise scams” generally involve sending someone, often a corporate employee, an email that is designed to look like it’s from the employee’s supervisor, co-worker, a client, or a trusted vendor. The email usually directs the employee to disclose confidential company information or instructs them to wire money to an account controlled by the email’s sender.
The government’s press release alleges that the 74 people arrested intentionally sent these types of emails to big corporations and individuals alike to defraud them out of millions of dollars. The government is also accusing these people of committing several other crimes involving computers so that the government can send a message to the public that it is “aggressively investigating and pursuing” these “cyber-crimes.”
Of course, an accusation filed by the government doesn’t mean a crime was committed, or that these people are guilty. The government must be able to identify a specific crime and then prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused person committed that crime. In these cases, that usually means the government will have to prove that these individuals either engaged in a crime involving computer hacking or used a computer to commit fraud.
The federal crime of computer hacking occurs when a person accesses another person’s computer, and the information in that computer, without authorization. Several of the people recently arrested in Operation Wire Wire are accused of committing identity fraud, and it is certainly possible that the government can also accuse them of using the personal identifying information to access personal or financial information from other people’s computers.
The government is also charging several of the individuals it accuses of perpetrating these so-called “business email compromise scams” with wire fraud. To prove a person committed wire fraud in these cases, the government would have to prove the person sent an email containing information they knew was false or misleading with the intention of defrauding the recipient of the email. That means the government has to prove these individuals actually lied or misrepresented themselves in these emails in a way that convinced the alleged victims to wire them money. It also means the government has to trace the emails to these individuals.
The government has also tacked on money laundering charges to many of the people recently arrested in Operation Wire Wire and is accusing them of unlawfully concealing money they allegedly made from emails. These additional charges are usually part of the government’s strategy to use the threat of long prison sentences to convince a person to plead guilty to the original crime. Of course, if one can prove they never committed the original crime, they cannot be convicted of money laundering.
The government has also charged some individuals in Operation Wire Wire with being “money mules” that facilitate the wire payments from victims to the alleged “scammers.” However, even the government admits that sometimes people are used as money mules unwittingly and are sometimes victims of a scam themselves. This lack of knowledge is crucial because then the government cannot prove that these people acted with a fraudulent intent.
Our attorneys have extensive experience in defending people accused of committing computer crimes, fraud crimes, and fraud crimes involving computers. We have achieved successful results for clients by challenging the ways the government has collected evidence, including computer records, and by pointing out weaknesses in the government’s case to pressure the them to resolve the case.
If you are being investigated or have been accused of committing a computer crime in connection with Operation Wire Wire, call me to discuss our strategy for responding to these charges. The call is free and completely confidential.