Archive for September, 2009

The Legal Status of Identity Theft Cases

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

The law is not a stagnant thing. It is constantly changing, evolving and adapting to new situations and new crimes that must be identified and understood so appropriate laws can be passed to protect honest people from the dishonest ones. This can be a tricky process, especially in this age when crimes using the internet make detection and evidence so difficult.

Identity theft is a perfect example of a crime that should be aggressively attacked from the legal community. But because it is a crime that is always changing and adapting, it is sometimes difficult for the legal community to get a firm definition of what identity theft is and particularly how to codify it into a system of laws that can be used to effectively stop it.

Probably the biggest problem with enforcing laws that will lead to the conviction of identity thieves is to develop ways to keep the evidence long enough to seek a conviction. Until we can give law enforcement sufficient tools both to identify and capture identity theft criminals and then to gather sufficient evidence to get a conviction, identity theft will continue to be an allusive enemy.

Unlike a murder where there is a weapon and a corpse or bank robbery where there are physical forms of evidence, much of the footprint of identity theft occurs in cyberspace where there are few fingerprints and tracing the path of the criminal is difficult at best. In that way, tracking down identity thieves resembles the problems legal experts have in defining and then tracking down cyber stalkers or pornography merchants who can be so elusive in an online world.

Consumers who are hit with identity theft face two challenges. One is to stop the continued stealing by thieves who can continue to do their damage even after the crime has been identified. The other is to find the criminals and make it stop. Consumers are frustrated because law enforcement hits roadblocks in their investigations of identity theft cases. But law enforcement professionals are also frustrated because those who might have the evidence they need to capture, prosecute and convict identity thieves often no longer have that evidence that is desperately needed to stop this unique 21st century crime.

In order to give law enforcement what they need, companies that sell consumer data must be regulated more closely. One big “hole” in the legal system which favors identity thieves and puts consumers at a disadvantage is that businesses that resell consumer data do not have to notify consumers when their data is being passed along to another agency. Therefore, once a consumer provides his or her private data to a company, that data can be packaged and resold without restriction to as many buyers who care to line up to buy it and the consumer has no idea this is going on.

So this is a level of consumer protection that can be addressed legally by requiring any company that collects buyer information must be required to notify consumers when that data is being sold and who they are selling it to. If every consumer can retain a complete trail of who is getting their private information, that would empower the private sector to partner with the legal community to put a stop to this level of crime.

If further laws could be improved to require longer retention of transactions of this nature and open access of those records to law enforcement, we would be giving our legal system the weapons they need to stop this crime. And that would be a step forward for all of society to make the world, the cyber world included, a safer place for all of us.

Call the Cops. There’s a Criminal in my Computer!

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

A common plot of Hollywood thrillers is the “Don’t Answer the Phone” device. In this kind of movie, the babysitter is aware that there is a maniac about to come to kill her or the children. The big moment comes when she gets a phone call from the police who say “The calls are coming from inside the house!” Pretty scary stuff.

But we have a modern day version of “the maniac is inside the house”. The maniacs are actually hiding in the house but not in the closet, not in the basement, not in the attic but in the computer! And it isn’t just happening to an occasional unfortunate victim. These kinds of crimes are happening to thousands of people every day, people like you and me. It’s called cyber crime and it’s an epidemic that law enforcement is putting all the skill and detective work they can muster to try to control.

When you hear a phrase like “cyber crime”, it makes you think of Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator as a heartless android out to create chaos. But cyber criminals are far more elusive than Arnold. They could be any one in your neighborhood or halfway around the world. They don’t need a key to your back door or a tunnel under your house to get in. Cyber criminals can take up residence inside our computers and quietly commit crimes as we sit there enjoying our YouTube selections or having an IM chat with Aunt Edna.

The problem is not that our legal system has not done a good job of defining crimes committed using the internet as crimes. The legal community has all the laws on the books that they need to stop these criminals. The problem comes with finding the criminals and even know when a crime is being committed. But despite the elusive nature of cyber criminals, some of the kinds of crimes that can be committed directly over the internet are pretty scary including?

* Identity theft.
* Fraud.
* Embezzling hundreds, maybe thousands from your bank account.
* Hijacking an elderly person’s Social Security checks.
* Cyber seduction of youth and even children.
* Unauthorized access to your financial information which they can sell to other cyber criminals.
* The downloading of computer viruses and other destructive software that can damage your computer.
* Cyber terrorism.

Amazingly, most of this kind of crime can be happening inside your computer without you ever knowing it is there. The key to success for cyber criminals are these little programs sometimes called “spybots”. A spybot is a tiny program that can take up residence in your computer by hiding in your internet system with cookies and other content that you download when you are surfing the web. These programs can then capture and record your keystrokes and send them back to the cyber crimanl who can capture your secure information from that data. Or they can watch your cyber surfing and learn where you go to help cyber criminals figure out better ways to commit their crimes.

Cyber crime is something we hope our law enforcement professionals will eventually learn how to stop. But because cyber criminals can be anywhere in the world, stay on the run and even change electronic locations of their “headquarters” without ever betraying their physical location or who they are, it’s a amazingly difficult job for our law informant professionals to learn how to find these criminals and to capture them and put them away.

We can help by being ever vigilant about our computers. There are programs we can install that can “lock the front door” of our computers. The two top names in this kind of software are Norton and McAfee but there are dozens more that can do the job just as well. The good news is that these programs can simultaneously watch our emails, monitor for spybots and keep our computer clean of viruses and other internet surprises that can cause so much damage.

So just as we work with neighborhood watch and put locks on our doors even though there are police in our neighborhoods, we have to view cyber crime as a problem that everybody has to work together to stop. By making sure your computer is protected, you take one more victim out of the cycle. And that helps everybody in our quest for a safer internet.

Term Limits Pro and Con

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

When America young, if we could have put any sign on the shores of the country for any foreign government to read, it might have said “No Kings Allowed!” The conviction was strong that this new country would never be a place where royalty dominated the people and were held up for worship as was the abuse in so many countries our forefathers came here to escape.

So many of the protections that were put in place in our founding documents were put there to assure that it would be virtually impossible for anyone to become king in this country. No matter how much power a politician or legislative body were able to amass, our system of government made sure that no one party, person or special interest group would be able to hold power forever and that no one could take over the government, stage a coup and change America into a tyrannical monarchy like we had left behind in Europe.

The separation of powers between the executive, the legislative and the judicial is one of the protections we have in place to make sure no single part of the government can arrest total power from the other two. And while this separation has lead to plenty of friction and battles between the branches of government, that is exactly the way it should be. Better to fight it out and have a government of shared power than to have one branch make all the decisions and rule like a king.

Just as important to the preservation of our unique governmental system is the use of term limits to restrict the extent to which a politician can “take up residence” in a political office. We are most aware of term limits at the presidential level where we do not allow any one president to serve more than two terms. To some, that should be cut back to one term per president. But the term limit system will probably remain as it is for a long time to come.

This issue can generate a considerable amount of emotional debate. And of course, in a free society political debate is healthy too. How you feel about presidential term limits may have more to do with how much you do or don’t like the current president. If you like him (or her) a great deal, you would probably cheer for the abolition of term limits entirely. And if you oppose the current occupant of the white house, just one term is probably too much. There are some compelling reasons on both side of the argument.

We do trade away a certain amount of experience when we require by law that our current leadership retire after eight years. Each time a new president settles in to the white house, there is a time of learning while that new leadership gets organized and learns how to do this unusual job. Some would argue that forcing leadership from office may be undemocratic because it denies the people the right to return a president to office if he (or she) is doing a good job and should continue in leadership.

One visible downside of term limits is that when a politician is in their last term, there is a time of “lame duck” leadership because that leader no longer has to work hard to win another election. That leader could become reckless and not provide the quality of service to the country that we expect from our leadership.

But our founding fathers wisely believed in the concept of citizen leadership. Their original vision for the presidency would be that a citizen would go to Washington and serve in the office for a season and then quietly return to private practice to let another citizen lead for a while. While our approach to ex-presidents doesn’t exactly fit that mold, our system is faithful to that vision.

Term limits keeps a constant flow of fresh leadership coming in. Some would say we should tighten term limits at the congressional and maybe even the judicial level. And there are merits to arguments on both sides of that issue. But we can say with assurance that term limits and the other provisions the founding founders put in place have kept our approach to government true to their vision of how this country would be run. And that means “No Kings Allowed!”