Hackers, identity thieves and other malicious individuals are preying on the fast-growing Internet, prompting aggressive state action to maintain Web law and order.
Part of the thrust has been legislative, in the form of new and modified laws that spell out unlawful Internet conduct and its penalties.
Lawmakers are working in tandem with law enforcement officials, particularly state attorneys general, who are allocating more money and manpower toward stemming computer crime.
As of last week, 22 states had enacted legislation addressing cyber crime, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). The focus of the measures ranged from defining computer crimes (Arizona) to banning lewd Internet proposals to minors (Oklahoma) to outlining penalties for spreading computer viruses (West Virginia).
Forty-six pieces of computer-crime related legislation had been enacted by June 22. States joining Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia were Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia and Washington, according to NCSL.
Michigan was the most prolific state, passing seven bills related to Internet criminality. One, H.B 5184, amends Michigan's computer fraud sentencing guidelines, while H.B. 5187 amends definitions for computer access crimes.
Oklahoma was the next most active state, enacting six pieces of cyber crime legislation during the 2000 legislative session.
"I think there will be continued attention to these issues," says Pam Greenberg, who tracks Web-related legislation for NCSL. Greenberg pays special attention to Web cyberstalking and child molestation developments, and says states are showing heightened interest in laws punishing the solicitation and luring of minors via the Internet.
With so many new and amended computer crime laws now on the books, state law enforcement officials are straining to ensure that the measures have teeth.
In Washington, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the State Patrol joined forces with the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI to form Computer Law Enforcement of Washington (CLEW).
The new organization will feature a 24-hour, high-tech crime complaint line, provide training and expertise to local law enforcement agencies and play a hand in shaping legislation focusing on online crime, the Seattle Times reports.
Washington has also unveiled a new section to the state's Web site dedicated to fighting Web criminality, called Cyber Clearinghouse.
Visitors can find tips on how to avoid becoming cyber dupes. "The Internet, which holds so much promise for e-commerce, entertainment and research, also has a dark side inhabited by child molesters, con men and hatemongers," Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire said during Cyber Clearinghouse's introduction. A major gap in state efforts to battle Web criminals stems from the fact that perpetrators can be across the street from their victims, or a world away. Not only do states have difficulty going after foreign computer criminals, state prosecutors have trouble merely crossing state lines to try Internet crimes.
Maryland lawyers recently asked that state's Court of Appeals for permission to chase out-of-state Internet thieves who swindle Maryland residents. The request stemmed from allegations that a Georgia woman sold a Maryland woman decrepit merchandise that was touted over the Internet as being in pristine condition.
In Texas, state prosecutors are often hampered by a lack of computer savvy, making them reluctant to try computer crime cases, says attorney Davis McCown, who specializes in hi-tech and e-commerce litigation and has a practice located in suburban Ft. Worth.
"A large part of the problem is the cases can be very technical and time-consuming," McCown says. "They're hard to prosecute, because you don't have any witnesses."
McCown is a former Texas assistant states attorney who prosecuted a pioneering 1991 computer-crime case, Texas v. Burleson, in which a disgruntled employee was found guilty of sabotaging computer records at his company.
Despite a steep learning curve, states are making inroads in their quest to keep the Internet as law-abiding as possible. A number of states, including Arizona, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania and South Dakota have gone after businesses and individuals that failed to deliver merchandise sold over Internet auction sites, according to the National Association of State Attorneys General (NAAG).
Hawaii, Maryland, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia pooled their resources in going after a company alleged to have operated a massive pyramid scheme over the Internet, NAAG reports.
Underscoring the increased interest in computer crimes, NCSL will host a session on the topic dubbed Digital Dragnet on July 18 during the organization's annual meeting in Chicago.