Crime in the Suites: An Analyis of Current Issues in White Collar Defense
Posts Tagged ‘Fraud’
Mar 17
2014

Supreme Court Expands Whistleblower Protection

The U.S. Supreme Court recently held that Sarbanes–Oxley extends whistleblower protection, not just to employees of public companies, but to employees of private contractors and subcontractors that serve public companies. In a 6-3 decision, the Court rejected the First Circuit’s narrow construction of the statute in favor of the Labor Department’s more expansive interpretation. Now more than ever, affected contractors and subcontractors need to ensure they have robust policies in place for addressing whistleblower complaints.

Congress passed the Sarbanes–Oxley Act in 2002, the year after Enron’s collapse. The Act was intended to protect investors in public companies and restore trust in financial markets. It achieved these goals in part by providing whistleblower protection: 18 U.S.C. § 1514A makes it unlawful for employers to retaliate against employees who report suspected fraud. The provision certainly protects employees of publicly traded companies. It was less clear whether § 1514A protects employees of private contractors that service public companies. The plaintiffs in Lawson v. FMR, LLC, claimed it did.

Jackie Lawson and Jonathan Lang were employees of private companies that serviced the Fidelity family of mutual funds. As is often the case with mutual funds, the Fidelity funds were subject to SEC reporting requirements, but had no employees. Private companies contracted with the funds to provide accounting and investment advisory services. In this case, the private companies were Fidelity-related entities referred to collectively as FMR. Lawson was a 14-year veteran and Senior Director of Finance for her employer, Fidelity Brokerage Services. She alleged that she was constructively discharged after raising concerns about cost accounting methods for the funds. Zang was an 8-year veteran of Fidelity Management & Research Co. He alleged that he was fired for raising concerns about misstatements in a draft SEC registration statement related to the funds. Both plaintiffs sued for retaliation under § 1514A.

FMR responded by asking the district court to dismiss the claims on grounds that § 1514A protects employees of public companies, not employees of privately held companies. The trial judge rejected FMR’s argument, but the First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. Months later, the Labor Department’s Administrative Review Board issued a decision in another case, making clear that ARB agreed with the trial judge. Last year, the Supreme Court agreed to consider the question.

On March 4, the Court issued its opinion that § 1514A shelters employees of private contractors, just as it shelters employees of public companies served by those contractors. Speaking for the majority, Justice Ginsburg explained that the Court’s broad construction finds support in the statute’s text and broader context. As relevant to the plaintiffs’ claims, § 1514A provides, “‘No public company . . . , or any officer, employee, contractor, subcontractor, or agent of such company” may take adverse action “against an employee . . . because of [whistleblowing or other protected activity].’” Boiled down to its essence, the phrase in question states that “no . . . contractor . . . may discharge . . . an employee.” In ordinary usage, the phrase means that no contractor (of a public company) may retaliate against its own employees. After all, those are the people contractors have power to retaliate against. According to the Court, if Congress had intended to limit whistleblower protections to employees of publicly traded companies, as FMR argued, Congress would have said “no contractor may discharge an employee of a public company.” The statute doesn’t say that because Congress was not attempting to remedy a nonexistent problem. Enron did not collapse because its private contractors retaliated against Enron employees who tried to report the company’s fraud.

The Lawson Court explained further that its interpretation flows logically from the statute’s purpose to prevent another Enron debacle. Often, the first-hand witnesses of corporate fraud are employees of private companies that service a public company—law firms, accounting firms, and business consulting firms, for example. Without adequate protections against retaliation, contractor employees who come across fraud in their work for public companies will be less likely to report misconduct. The Court’s point was particularly relevant with respect to the Fidelity funds. Like most mutual funds, the Fidelity funds had no employees. A narrow reading of § 1514A would insulate a $14 million industry from retaliation claims. Congress could not have intended that result.

Given the Court’s decision in Lawson v. FMR, LLC, privately held companies that service public companies should consider how best to deal with whistleblower complaints. At a minimum, robust whistleblower policies will (i) safeguard whistleblower anonymity to the extent possible; (ii) encourage whistleblowers to exercise discretion without discouraging them from reporting misconduct; (iii) address the preservation of evidence relating to putative fraud; and (iv) establish procedures for the conduct of internal investigations into suspected fraud.

 

Aug 15
2013

Was This Sentence Quite Excessive for a Bizarre Fraud Scheme?

A $3 billion fraud scheme, more farcical than dangerous and in any case doomed to fail, led to 20-year sentences in federal prison for all four conspirators. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, however, vacated the sentences on procedural grounds, and U.S. District Judge Stefan R. Underhill of the District of Connecticut, sitting by designation, wrote a concurrence that drew back the procedural curtain to shed light on what he saw as a fundamentally flawed corner of the administration of justice. This was the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines’ loss table, which he said was “divorced from its own objectives and from common sense” in this case.

The case, United States v. Juncal, came to the court on appeal from the District Court for the Eastern District of New York. The appellants – James Campbell, John Juncal, and Rodney Sampson – and their codefendant Emerson Corsey had been convicted of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. The four men, posing as officers of a (fictional) Wyoming-based multinational bank and its client in Buryatia, an obscure region of Siberia, attempted to extract a $3 billion loan from a hedge fund to finance an (imaginary) Siberian oil pipeline. In exchange for the loan, they offered to assign to the hedge fund $5 billion in U.S. Treasury notes, which they claimed would generate a $14 billion return in just five short years. When a broker asked for physical evidence of the T-notes, the defendants explained that they had hidden the notes in Austria for safe keeping. The defendants did, however, send the broker copies of T-notes from their AOL account.

The absurd nature of these facts notwithstanding, the defendants’ offense levels were calculated based on an intended loss amount of $3 billion, and each received the statutory maximum sentence for fraud: 20 years in prison. At sentencing and on appeal, counsel for the defendants highlighted the significant flaws in the loss calculation, arguing that the “30-point mega-enhancement vastly overstated both the seriousness of the offense, and the danger of appellants to their community.

At sentencing, their arguments fell on deaf ears. On appeal, they did not. The Second Circuit questioned the lower court’s failure to apply (or even address the merits of) a reduced sentence and remanded the case for resentencing. Because the case was “clouded by the possibility of error,” the appeals court “felt it appropriate to give the District Court an opportunity to clarify its thinking.” The case was remanded on procedural grounds, and the appeals court declined the appellants’ request to consider whether the sentences were substantively unreasonable.

Judge Underhill began his nine-page concurrence by first agreeing that the sentences should be vacated and remanded for procedural error. However, he also noted that “the real problem is that the sentences are shockingly high.” For that reason, he “would reach the question of substantive reasonableness and would reverse on the merits.” In his view, “the loss guideline is fundamentally flawed, and those flaws are magnified where, as here, the entire loss amount consists of intended loss. Even if it were perfect, the loss guideline would prove valueless in this case, because the conduct underlying these convictions is more farcical than dangerous.”

Underhill went on to explain that the current guidelines are the result of three increases in the recommended ranges for fraud crimes, each of which “was directed by Congress, without the benefit of empirical study of actual fraud sentences by the Sentencing Commission.” He also noted the common perception that the loss guidelines are broken, and highlighted their widely inconsistent implementation among the district judges. However, since this case could be decided on procedural errors, the circuit court was able to remand the case without expressing a view on the substantive issues that Underhill highlighted.

In so doing, however, the appeals court may have overlooked an opportunity to fashion a common- law reasonableness standard to protect the administration of justice in future cases.

There are many arguments to support the avoidance of knotty substantive issues when their examination will not affect the final outcome of the case. As Underhill himself pointed out, courts ordinarily examine the procedural issues first before applying an abuse-of-discretion standard to examine the substantive reasonableness of a sentence. However, that practice creates a slippery slope: district court judges are forced to proceed without meaningful guidelines, and abuses of discretion go unnoticed.

Aug 08
2013

Did Florida Accidentally Outlaw All Smartphones?

A lawsuit recently filed by Incredible Investments, LLC, owned by entrepreneur Consuelo Zapata, alleges that the language in a recently enacted Florida law that was intended to shut down Internet cafes and slot machines has actually outlawed all mobile devices that are capable of accessing the Internet. The complaint, which seeks to have the new law declared unconstitutional, alleges that in the process of hastily passing the bill, the legislators crafted language that could include any smartphone or computer in Florida. The complaint, a copy of which is available here, asks the court to throw out the law, which was purportedly passed “in a frenzy fueled by distorted judgment in the wake of a scandal that included the lieutenant governor’s resignation.”

The law in question was signed into law on April 10, 2012, by Florida Governor Rick Scott. Zapata, whose clientele is primarily migrant workers seeking to access the Internet, owns one of the approximately 1,000 internet cafés that was shut down as a result of the law.

The bill was introduced in the aftermath of a state investigation which found that a purported charity earned $290 million from an Internet gambling effort but donated only $5.8 million of those funds to charity. The investigation resulted in 57 arrests on racketeering and money laundering charges. Former Florida Lieutenant Governor Jennifer Carroll, who has ties to the charity but has not been accused of wrongdoing, resigned in the wake of the investigation.

The problem with the law that was noted in the lawsuit is that it amended the definition of a slot machine to include “any machine or device or system or network of devices” that can be used to play games of skill or chance, which can be activated by “money, coin, account number, code, or other object or information.” The lawsuit alleges that with such a broad definition of a slot machine, any smartphone or computer is effectively banned in Florida because it could be used to access the Internet to play an illegal game.

It is unclear what the result of the lawsuit will be. The court may agree with the plaintiff that this law has effectively banned mobile devices and should be struck down. However, courts often attempt to avoid constitutional issues when interpreting laws and could find that another reading of the statute in this case would be more appropriate.

Whichever way the court does decide on the law, this lawsuit shows the dangers of a swift reaction from a legislature after a high profile incident occurs. The unintended consequences of legislation can be quite serious, as is alleged to be the case here, and a thorough examination of the problems and the best way to address them could have avoided the confusion that has resulted from this law.

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State Criminal
Jul 29
2013

D.C. Circuit Clarifies Key Issue in Wake of High Court’s ‘Honest Services’ Decision

A recent D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decision narrows the ability of the government to revisit uncharged crimes against a person whose plea has been vacated due to a change in the law.

In 2007, Russell Caso had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit honest-services wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 371, 1343 and 1346, based on certain conduct during his employment as U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon’s chief of staff. Caso was sentenced to three years’ probation, including a 170-day term of home confinement. In entering its plea agreement with Caso, the government had forgone the right to charge Caso also with a violation of the false statements statute for failing to include certain payments on his annual disclosure statement required by virtue of his status as a federal employee.

Shortly after Caso was sentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Skilling v. United States, 130 S. Ct. 2896 (2010) – a decision that substantially limited the permissible reach of Section 1346, the honest-services fraud statute – with the result that Caso was indisputably innocent of the crime for which he was charged and convicted. The government did not dispute this point but nevertheless opposed Caso’s motion to vacate his conviction.

The government argued that Caso had procedurally defaulted his Skilling challenge because he had not directly appealed his conviction on the ground that the conduct to which he pleaded did not constitute an offense, and therefore was barred from raising this issue on a habeas petition. The government also argued that Caso had failed to satisfy the narrow conditions for excusing such a default that the Supreme Court set out in Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614 (1998): (1) “cause” for the default and “actual prejudice” resulting therefrom; or (2) that the defendant is “actually innocent.”

In denying Caso’s petition (which argued only the second of these exceptions), the District Court agreed with the government, and focused on the Bousley Court’s rule that, “[i]n cases where the Government has forgone more serious charges in the course of plea bargaining, petitioner’s showing of actual innocence must also extend to those charges.” (emphasis added) Based on that rule, the District Court held that Caso had to demonstrate his “actual innocence” not only of the crime for which he was charged and convicted (honest-services wire fraud) but also of the separate uncharged offense of making a false statement, a crime that the government argued was at least equally serious as the honest-services fraud charge. Because Caso could not show his actual innocence of the false statement charge in light of the admissions he made as part of his plea agreement, the District Court denied his motion to vacate his conviction and sentence.

The D.C. Circuit reversed this decision based its reading of what constitutes “more serious charges” under Bousley. In doing so, the appeals court rejected the government’s argument that seriousness is to be determined based on the statutory maximum sentence for each crime, and found it far more logical to base the question of seriousness on the way in which each crime is treated in the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Quoting the Supreme Court’s Gall decision, the court noted that Guidelines calculations are still “the starting point and initial benchmark” for every sentencing decision and that “district courts must begin their analysis with the Guidelines and remain cognizant of them throughout the sentencing process.”

The court also noted that the United States Attorneys’ Manual, in directing prosecutors to charge “the most serious offense that is consistent with the nature of the defendant’s conduct,” explains that “[t]he ‘most serious’ offense is generally that which yields the highest range under the sentencing guidelines.”

The court also noted that statutory maxima provide the parties with little useful information in the context of plea negotiations, in part because courts rarely sentence defendants to the statutory maxima. Because the Guidelines treat a violation of the false statements statute less seriously than honest-services fraud, the Court of Appeals held that the forgone false statement charge was not “more serious,” and that Caso need not show his innocence of that charge to support his claimed right to vacating of his conviction for honest services fraud.

The fact that that the D.C. Circuit relied upon the Guidelines as the justification for its ruling is particularly interesting given that recent attacks on the reasonableness of some of the Guidelines (particular the Section 2B1.1 loss tables) have sapped the Guidelines of some of their authority. It is possible that this ruling could change the way in which prosecutors structure their pleas, but circumstances such as this one, in which a defendant is found innocent of convicted charges because of a change in the law, are rare enough that this is not likely. To the extent that courts face similar cases, they will have to address issues left unresolved by the D.C. Circuit, such as whether there must be contemporaneous evidence that prosecutors considered the forgone charge at the time, and whether a crime of “equal seriousness” (and not “more serious”) falls within the Bousley rule.

Jul 05
2013

Andrew Auernheimer Appeals Hacking Conviction

Earlier this week, attorneys for convicted computer hacker Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer filed their opening brief in their appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to have his conviction overturned.

In 2010, Auernheimer’s co-defendant Daniel Spitler, who agreed to plead guilty in 2011, discovered a flaw in AT&T’s iPad user database, that he used to collect 114,000 email addresses. Auernheimer then disclosed those email addresses to Gawker, who published a redacted form of some of the account information. The disclosure of the email addresses attracted significant media attention and ultimately forced AT&T to change their security protocols.

Last November, Auernheimer was found guilty by a jury after a five day trial of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and conspiracy to gain unauthorized access to a computer without authorization. He was sentenced in March to 41 months imprisonment to be followed by three years of supervised release.

Auernheimer’s appellate brief focuses on the argument that he did not violate the CFAA because visiting an unprotected public website is not unauthorized access which is required under the statute. Spitler’s program visited the publicly accessible websites and collected the information that was available on those sites. The email addresses that were collected by Spitler’s program were published on publicly accessible websites that did not employ security measures such as passwords. Auernheimer’s lawyers argued that it is irrelevant that AT&T “subjectively wished that outsiders would not stumble across the data.” Spitler’s program did not access any private accounts and according to Aurenheimer’s lawyers, it did not even violate any written prohibitions or Terms of Use on AT&T’s website. His lawyers also stated that no data was taken, deleted or destroyed.

The CFAA prohibits accessing a computer without proper authorization, which is the same statute that Internet activist Aaron Swartz was convicted of violating. The law has faced steep criticism for being overly broad and allowing prosecutors wide discretion by allowing them to charge individuals who have violated a website’s terms of service. Last month “Aaron’s Law” was introduced in Congress, which would amend the CFAA to prevent prosecutors from charging an individual with violation a company’s terms of service and from bringing multiple charges against an individual for the same act.

The government’s brief is due on July 22 and Auernheimer will then have the opportunity to file a reply brief by August 5.

We will know in a matter of months how the Third Circuit will rule on Auernheimer’s appeal and whether his conviction and sentence will be upheld. This case raises some very interesting issues on the scope of computer crime laws and prosecutorial discretion. Is the conduct of Auernheimer the type that we need to devote government resources to send a person with no criminal record to prison for a significant period of time?

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Jun 03
2013

What Are the Feds Looking At? Bitcoin Industry, Stay Awake

On May 28, 2013, federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment charging seven men with allegedly operating an organization known as “Liberty Reserve,” which prosecutors allege was established for the sole purpose of creating an illegal digital currency that could be used to launder money. This is a case that anyone involved in businesses that rely in any way on bitcoins will definitely want to watch.

Prosecutors say that Liberty Reserve was used to aid in identity theft, computer hacking, and other illegal activities. The indictment alleged that Liberty Reserve was responsible for laundering more than $6 billion over the last seven years through 55 million transactions. The company allegedly has about one million users across the globe, including 200,000 in the United States.

The indictment comes just a few months after the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), a branch of the United States Department of the Treasury, issued new guidelines stating that virtual currency exchanges should follow traditional money laundering rules. Virtual currencies, such as the well-known bitcoin, account for only a small percentage of global financial transactions, but their popularity is growing rapidly.

Like bitcoin, Liberty Reserve operated as a virtual currency exchange; however, there are some key differences between bitcoin exchanges and Liberty Reserve. Bitcoin transactions operate in a more transparent way than transactions on Liberty Reserve did. Bitcoin transactions are stored in a public ledger called a “block chain” to keep people from writing the equivalent of a bad check with bitcoins. It is that same public block chain that makes it possible to trace transactions years after they have occurred.

Earlier this month, federal authorities cracked down on Mt. Gox, the world’s largest bitcoin exchange. The basis of the crackdown on Mt. Gox was a failure to properly register as a money transmitter. There were no allegations by law enforcement that bitcoin currency itself violated state or federal law. Indeed, the Treasury Department regulations reflect that such currency is lawful, but subject to regulation.

This month’s actions by federal authorities against Mt. Gox and Liberty Reserve clearly show that law enforcement is monitoring virtual currency exchanges. Although there is no immediate reason to believe that a properly registered bitcoin exchange violates state or federal law, those companies operating virtual currency or bitcoin exchanges should be aware that law enforcement is following this trend and capable of quickly reacting to perceived violations of the law.

May 20
2013

Appeals Court Strikes Fraud Sentence for Lack of Proof by Government

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit recently ruled on an issue lying at the intersection of fraud conspiracies and the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines: the government’s separate burden of proof against each co-defendant when multiple plea bargains are entered. Specifically, the 11th Circuit was addressing whether the government presented sufficient evidence to show, in a credit card fraud case, that the defendant’s criminal activity affected at least 250 victims. Finding that the government had come dramatically short of meeting its evidentiary burden, the appeals court opened its opinion with a flare of witty admonition: “Sometimes a number is just a number, but when the number at issue triggers an enhancement under the Sentencing Guidelines, that number matters.”

The facts of this case are as interesting as the court’s tone. The defendant was Gary Washington, who pleaded guilty to four offenses related to his role in a credit card fraud conspiracy that affected more than 6,000 individual cardholders. At first blush, it stands to reason that his sentence was calculated using a level-6 enhancement, which is reserved for crimes affecting 250 or more victims. However, there was a critical issue that the government and the district court failed to appreciate: Washington didn’t enter the conspiracy until four months after its inception, so the full victim count couldn’t be summarily applied to him.

Remarkably, before the sentencing hearing, Washington conceded that “in all probability there were more than 250 victims.” However, his sticking point was that he wanted the government to submit “hard evidence” supporting a level-6 enhancement in place of its “verbal assurances.” The government essentially ignored his requests and proceeded to the hearing without submitting additional evidence. Washington objected again at the sentencing hearing, but the district court overruled his objection and applied the level-6 enhancement, noting that the figure had been applied to the other defendants’ sentences.

On appeal, the 11th Circuit found the government’s representations insufficient and stated that “evidence presented at the trial or sentencing hearing of another may not – without more – be used to fashion a defendant’s sentence if the defendant objects.” The appeals court pointed out that it was especially inappropriate to use the other co-defendants’ sentences as a guide, because Washington joined the conspiracy well after it began. Following this reasoning, the appeals court set aside Washington’s sentence and remanded the case to the lower court for resentencing. The 11th Circuit declined the government’s request to present additional evidence on remand, because nothing had prevented it from presenting sufficient evidence at the original sentencing hearing.

This case is another example of federal prosecutors and trial courts losing sight of our system’s fundamental canon: a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. In some instances, the procedural safeguards that protect this system may seem inefficient and unnecessary. However, the alternative would beckon trial courts down the slippery slope of replacing actual evidence with assumptions. Fortunately, the appeals courts are present as a way of reining them in.

May 07
2013

Appeals Court Set to Consider Key Sentencing Issue on Profits Derived From Fraud

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit is currently considering a sentencing issue of great significance in cases in which a number of individuals work together to bring about a financial fraud. The question posed is the extent to which a defendant can and/or should be punished based on the profits made through the fraud when the defendant did not receive as much money from the fraud as his co-conspirators.

In Kluger v. United States, the appeals court must determine whether former attorney Matthew Kluger’s sentence was unduly harsh. Kluger was one of three men who pleaded guilty to insider trading last year in federal district court in Newark, New Jersey. In his plea, Kluger, who is 51, admitted that he stole data on about 30 transactions during 17 years at law firms that included Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. The companies involved include Sun Microsystems, 3Com Corp., and Acxiom Corp. Kluger gave that information to his co-defendant, Kenneth Robinson, who in turn gave them to trader Garrett Bauer, who traded on the information and then sold at a great profit when the deals went public. Following the scheme, Bauer then distributed the money to his partners. Over the last four years of this arrangement, according to prosecutors, Bauer made about $32 million in illicit profits, while Robinson made more than $875,000. Kluger claims to have made more than $500,000.

The sentences that were meted out to Kluger and Bauer did not track this huge disparity in the benefit that each received from their illegal activities. Bauer was sentenced to nine years imprisonment. Kluger received a sentence of 12 years – the longest prison sentence ever given for insider trading, eclipsing the 11-year sentence received by Galleon Group co-founder Raj Rajaratnam. In sentencing Kluger, Judge Katherine Hayden said that she wanted to send a strong message about the “radiating effect of the loss of confidence in the market” caused by insider trading. Judge Hayden also emphasized Kluger’s abuse of trust given his position as a lawyer. Robinson, who cooperated with authorities and secretly recorded the other men for the FBI, received a sentence of only 27 months.

The notion that a defendant may be sentenced based on the aggregated gains of his co-conspirators is nothing new. Section 1B.1.3(1)(a)(1)(B) of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines expressly provides that, “in the case of a jointly undertaken criminal activity,” relevant conduct (which sets the amount to be used to calculate upward adjustments in the loss table of Section 2B1.1) includes “all reasonably foreseeable acts and omissions of others in furtherance of the jointly undertaken criminal activity . . .” But the acceptance of this approach may be strained by cases of insider trading and other white-collar crimes that increasingly involve astronomical amounts of money, and therefore expose all participants to draconian criminal sentences.

In appealing Kluger’s sentence, his attorneys stressed that the district court appeared not to have considered the disparity in the amount of money that Kluger actually received as a result of the insider trading compared with at least one of his co-conspirators. This argument echoes some of the reasoning of Judge Jed Rakoff in his sentencing of Rajat Gupta, who likewise received far less benefit from insider trading than his co-conspirator, Rajaratnam. The issue raises an interesting question: Should a defendant’s sentence be commensurate only with his or her own personal gain? Or is the measure of the proper severity of a sentence the total gain obtained by all of the participants – an approach that appears to be more in step with the concept of “relevant conduct” that plays an important role in calculating advisory ranges under the Sentencing Guidelines?

The Third Circuit’s determination on this issue may signal the direction that the courts take on this issue, or may be just the first ruling in what becomes a split among the circuits. The resolution of this issue will be particularly important in cases in which Section 2B1.1 (the loss value table) plays a critical role in determining Guidelines sentences.

Mar 05
2013

Was This Identity Theft? Sixth Circuit Should Limit Meaning of That Term

What’s in a name?

When you think of identity theft, you typically think of someone taking a person’s name plus some other identifiers, like their address and Social Security number or credit card number, to go on a spending spree or drain the victim’s bank account. You may think of fraudulent impersonation. But what if someone falsely stated that another person gave him permission to use their joint property as collateral on a loan? That sounds like a false statement but not a case of stolen identity. Yet a federal district court in Tennessee found that just this scenario constituted identity theft in a current case against real estate broker David Miller.

Perhaps the court’s holding doesn’t sound too troubling. After all, identity theft is a crime and it’s clearly behavior that we want to deter. But expanding the reach of what may fall under the federal identity theft laws doesn’t really deter the behavior that Congress sought to address by statute. It just makes it harder to anticipate the bounds of the law, and that is troubling.

Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 in order to address the growing problem of fraudsters taking people’s personal information to either steal from their existing accounts or to run up debt in the victims’ names. The act criminalized fraud in connection with the theft and misuse of personal identifying information. (Before the law was passed, only fraud in connection with identification documents was a federal crime.) But there was some concern that prosecutors were not vigorously going after identity theft cases. So Congress passed the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act of 2004. Again, this measure was aimed squarely at penalizing identity thieves who were attacking consumers’ financial accounts and credit. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.), said identity theft is “a crime that we need to address and address seriously … for the protection of the credit of American citizens.”

Years later, the Department of Justice appears to have gotten the message and is actively prosecuting identity theft cases. All is well and good with the DOJ’s ordinary efforts in this area. On its website, the DOJ discusses identity theft issues in a familiar context, relating concerns over the misuse of “your Social Security number, your bank account or credit card number, your telephone calling card number, and other valuable identifying data.”

It also provides exemplary cases, which are again in keeping with the general understanding of what constitutes identity theft: (1) a woman pleaded guilty for using a stolen Social Security number to obtain thousands of dollars in credit and then filing for bankruptcy in the name of her victim; (2) a man pleaded guilty after obtaining private bank account information about an insurance company’s policyholders and using that information to deposit counterfeit checks; (3) a defendant was indicted on bank fraud charges for obtaining names, addresses, and Social Security numbers from a Web site and using those data to apply for a series of car loans over the Internet.

So with a pretty clear understanding of congressional intent and a fairly clear depiction of the scope of federal identity theft laws, it seems a bit like prosecutorial overreach for the DOJ to turn around and use these laws in a case like that against David Miller. Not in keeping with the sample cases above, Miller’s “theft” involved him “using the names of two individuals in a document that stated Miller had the authority to pledge real property as collateral for the loan when he had no such authority.” He was not trying to impersonate them to create new accounts or steal from their existing accounts. There are other laws to prosecute what Miller did – and he was found guilty of making false statements to a bank.

The concern here is that adding the identity theft count to Miller’s sentence is a misuse of the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act and an overexpansion of what behavior falls under the rubric of identity theft. What is next? Will the department uses this law to prosecute those who lie about references on a job application?

The general rule is that criminal laws should be strictly construed in favor of the defendant. The ruling against Miller seems a case in point where the Rule of Lenity was not applied. Miller has appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which will hopefully bring the law back within its intended scope.

Jan 16
2013

Bitcoins: Online Currency’s Uncharted Frontier

Bitcoin – it sounds like a token you might use to play skeeball at a beachside arcade. It is actually a relatively new, virtual online “currency” being used for payments across the Internet. While some observers have noted that the Bitcoin has been utilized primarily for purchases in the Internet “underworld,” the Bitcoin actually has gained traction more recently as a legitimate payment exchange. The Bitcoin might just be the surprise of the next generation of e-commerce and its progeny, mobile commerce.

The Bitcoin originated in 2009 with the issuance of the first Bitcoins by Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous person or group of people who designed the original protocol and created the peer-to-peer network. Users connect with other users rather than with a central issuer or server. This makes the Bitcoin attractive for illegal activities – authorities can’t pounce on a central office or simply seize one organization’s assets. The Bitcoin has no central issuing bank. Prices fluctuate a great deal; this past summer one Bitcoin traded at around $10. It is estimated that the monetary base of the Bitcoin is around $110 million.

There are several advantages to Bitcoins. They are largely unregulated. Also, payments can be made anonymously, leaving a minimal or no paper trail. Unlike credit cards, merchants do not face the hassle and uncertainty of “charge backs.” However, because of its past “underground” use, the Bitcoin lacks a reputation and general acceptance by mainstream merchants. For instance, the website “Silk Road” allowed users to buy and sell heroin and other illegal drugs provided they paid for their purchases using Bitcoins. Online gambling services have utilized Bitcoins with relative success.

While the past use of the Bitcoin has been limited, the new currency is picking up steam. Just a few days ago, BitPay, a payment solutions company, announced a large investment by a group of well-known tech investors. They see the Bitcoin as the next “PayPal” offering a fast payment method without the exchange of sensitive personal information that goes along with traditional credit card payments. Investors also see the benefits for small businesses, which can much more easily take payments from overseas using Bitcoins. Today, we can use Bitcoins to buy a wide array of products and services. This website provides links where we can purchase, for instance, jewelry, electronic cigarettes, natural cosmetics, and even survival products and dry cleaning, just to name a few offerings.

Just last month, the Bitcoin gained further acceptance when the Bitcoin-Central exchange owned by Paymium announced that it is partnering with registered PSP Aqoba and Frank Bank Credit Mutuel Arkea in order to legally hold balances in payment accounts within the European regulatory framework. However, as Bitcoins have not to date been backed by a governmental entity and several users have reported losses from fraud and hacking into their computers where they stored Bitcoins, continued use and acceptance will be affected by the reliability of the payment network, as well as any attempts to regulate it.

As use of the Bitcoin expands, regulators (particularly in the United States) may seek to regulate the currency. U.S. prosecutors tend to view anonymous payments with skepticism and suspicion.

Our view is that use of the Bitcoin network has expanded in large part as a natural reaction to overly zealous authorities enforcing anti-money laundering rules and policies against banks and individuals. Parties facing onerous reporting obligations and over-the-top fines have been seeking alternative payment methods. The FBI has shown some interest in Bitcoin (in an April 2012 report the FBI expressed concern about cyber criminals using Bitcoins). Last year, a spokesman for FinCEN stated that “The anonymous transfer of significant wealth is obviously a money-laundering risk, and at some level we are aware of Bitcoin and other similar operations, and we are studying the mechanism behind Bitcoin.”

However, we think the law will take some significant time to catch up with the fast-moving network. It remains to be seen whether current U.S. law can be applied to cover Bitcoins, or if specific legislation would be needed. Further, even if U.S. authorities seek to regulate Bitcoins, actual enforcement would be difficult as there are no stationary “assets” to be seized (not even a domain name or website). Bitcoins are typically stored in a “wallet” on a user’s computer. Authorities would in many instances be required to pursue each “peer” in the peer to peer network, which does not seem terribly practicable. In the interim, Bitcoins appear to be growing in use across industries and geographic locations.

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About Ifrah Law

Crime in the Suites is authored by the Ifrah Law Firm, a Washington DC-based law firm specializing in the defense of government investigations and litigation. Our client base spans many regulated industries, particularly e-business, e-commerce, government contracts, gaming and healthcare.

Ifrah Law focuses on federal criminal defense, government contract defense and procurement, healthcare, and financial services litigation and fraud defense. Further, the firm's E-Commerce attorneys and internet marketing attorneys are leaders in internet advertising, data privacy, online fraud and abuse law, iGaming law.

The commentary and cases included in this blog are contributed by founding partner Jeff Ifrah, partners Michelle Cohen, David Deitch, and associates Rachel Hirsch, Jeff Hamlin, Steven Eichorn, Sarah Coffey, Nicole Kardell, Casselle Smith, and Griffin Finan. These posts are edited by Jeff Ifrah. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments!

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