Las Vegas Sun

July 7, 2015

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Hacking your life

The law fails to deter hired cyber thieves from breaking into people’s online accounts

A Virginia woman discovered that her married boyfriend had other girlfriends, and she decided to seek revenge online. According to federal prosecutors, she hired computer hackers to help.

Elaine Cioni paid hackers $100 for the password to her boyfriend’s AOL e-mail account, according to prosecutors, and for an extra $100, she received the e-mail passwords of her boyfriend’s wife, children and one of his girlfriends.

No one had a clue she had access.

The Washington Post recently reported that she was caught only after she started making harassing phone calls to her boyfriend and his family. (She used an online “spoofing” system that disguised her voice.)

Convicted of violating federal law, she is serving a 15-month prison sentence.

The case raises the frightening reality of the online world: You’re not as secure as you think you are. E-mail, Facebook, Twitter and other online accounts can be compromised.

“This is an important point that people haven’t grasped,” said Peter Eckersley of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “If you have any hacker who is competent and spends the time and targets you, he’s going to get you.”

There are plenty of online hackers for hire who can do the job, and they have largely been out of the reach of law enforcement. Many are thought to operate from other countries.

Law enforcement typically ends up chasing the people who hire the hackers. Under federal law, it is a misdemeanor — not a felony — to hack into someone’s e-mail or online account, making it less of a priority for law enforcement officials. It takes other criminal activity — such as the harassment in Cioni’s case — to become a felony.

Given the American public’s reliance on e-mail, breaking into someone’s e-mail account should be viewed as the same as breaking into a home mailbox. Congress should make it a felony and give federal officials more resources to crack down on this crime.

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