An abuser may access (break into) your computer or other technology device without your permission and copy or steal your data, such as private identifying information, employment information, calendar details, etc.
What are computer crimes?
The term “computer crimes” refers to a broad category of crimes that could include a number of criminal activities that violate your privacy or interfere with your data/technology. Computer crimes include but are not limited to, misusing a computer to steal information or something else of value, manipulate you, harass you, or impersonate you. Some of the crimes described can also be committed without the use of computers or technology, such as fraud or identity theft, but technology can often make it easier for an abuser to commit those crimes by assisting him/her with accessing or using your private information, copying your data, destroying your information, or interfering with your data or technology. Other crimes we describe, such as hacking, are specific to the use of computers or technology devices.
How can an abuser commit a computer crime as a way to abuse me?
An abuser could commit a computer crime to gain access to your information and use that information to keep power and control over you. S/he may do this by accessing (breaking into) your computer or other technology device without your permission and copying or stealing your data, such as private identifying information, employment information, calendar details, etc. Depending on the information that the abuser steals or learns, s/he may use that information to stalk or harass you (showing up at the places where you have marked in your calendar) or by blackmailing you by threatening to share your private information. If the abuser steals nude or sexual images or videos, s/he may threaten to post or share these videos as a way to gain control over you. See our Abuse Involving Nude/Sexual Images page for more information.
What are some examples of computer crimes?
The term computer crimes can be used to describe a variety of crimes that involve computer use. Computer crimes do not include every type of misuse of technology. The list of possible crimes below is not all of the ways that a computer could be misused but will give you an idea of some of the more common forms of misuse. See our full Technology Abuse section to read about additional ways an abuser can misuse technology and other legal options.
Hacking is when someone intentionally gains access to your computer without your permission or accesses more data or information than what you allowed. An abuser could gain access to your computer if s/he knows your password, if s/he has the skills to break into your system, or by using software designed to gain entry into your technology. An abuser could also hack into your account without your knowledge, including through the use of spyware. Therefore, it is important to keep safe passwords and to only use technology devices that you believe to be safe and free of spyware or malware.
Spyware is software that allows someone to secretly monitor/observe your computer activity. The software can be inappropriately installed on computers and on other devices, such as tablets and smartphones. Spyware can be installed without your knowledge by either gaining physical access to your device or sending attachments that will download the software onto your device when you click on a link or download the attachment. Spyware is typically a “ghost file,” which means it runs hidden on your computer and can be difficult to notice or remove. Once spyware is installed, an abuser can see and record what you type, the websites that you visit, your passwords, and other private information. Many states have laws that specifically prohibit installing spyware on a computer without the owner’s knowledge. If your state doesn’t have a law that addresses spyware, you may check the other computer-related crimes to find out if the abuser’s actions are a crime.
Phishing is a way that an abuser may use a text message or an email that looks real or legitimate to trick or scam you into providing your personal information. The abuser could then go on to use your personal information to steal your identity, monitor you, or blackmail you.
Computer fraud is when someone uses computers, the Internet, Internet devices, and Internet services to defraud people, companies, or government agencies. (To “defraud” someone means to get something of value through cheating or deceit, such as money or Internet access.) An abuser could use a computer or the Internet to pose as someone else and defraud you or to pose as you and defraud a third party (to cause you to face criminal consequences, for example).
Identity theft is the crime of obtaining the personal or financial information of another person with the purpose of misusing that person’s identity. An abuser could use your identity to destroy your credit score, attempt to make you lose your job, obtain public benefits in your name, or subject you to criminal consequences for his/her actions. Many times, abusers use information that they already have available such as a Social Security number, name and date of birth, and residential history in order to steal an identity. However, even if an abuser only has some of the above information, s/he could still commit identify theft by gaining information by using another computer crime such as hacking, spyware, or phishing.
What types of laws protect me from computer crimes?
There are several federal laws that address computer crimes, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Wiretap Act. Additionally, many states have individual laws that protect a person against hacking. The law in your state may be called hacking, unauthorized access, or computer trespass (or by another name) depending on your state’s laws.
The National Conference of State Legislatures has complied computer crime laws on their website and state phishing laws. The National Conference of State Legislatures has also compiled spyware laws on their website. You can also check our WomensLaw.org Crimes page in your state to see if we list any relevant crimes.
Additionally, you may also have an option to use the civil legal system to combat computer crimes. For example, you may be able to sue the abuser in civil court for the misuse of a computer. When you sue a person in civil court, you can ask for money “damages” based on what you lost and other harms that you experienced. You may also be able to ask a civil court, including family, domestic relations, or divorce courts depending on your state, to order the person to stop committing computer crimes by asking a court to include protection provisions in a restraining order. If you have a restraining order, committing a computer crime may also be a violation of the order. Violating a restraining order could mean that the abuser committed contempt of court (an offense that could have civil and/or criminal consequences). You can find lawyer referrals on our WomensLaw.org Finding a Lawyer page if you want to try to get legal advice or representation or you can contact the National Crime Victim Bar Association for a lawyer referral.