Online scams are more prevalent than ever. Americans lost around $4.2 billion to online scams in 2020, according to a study by the website Social Catfish.
That was a significant increase versus the prior years, with all signs showing that online fraud has become even more commonplace since then. Whether it’s fake online stores, social media romance traps or cryptocurrency fraud, it seems like online scams are everywhere these days.
But what happens if you get caught orchestrating or participating in an online scam? You can be charged with wire fraud.
What is wire fraud?
Wire fraud is a federal crime. The federal government has a number of agencies that investigate and prosecute wire fraud cases. These agencies include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) and the United States Secret Service (USSS).
In order for the federal government to prosecute a wire fraud case, it must meet a number of criteria. First, there must be a scheme to defraud someone of money or property. Second, there must be use of interstate wires (e.g., the internet, telephone or postal service) in furtherance of the scheme. And third, at least one person must have been defrauded in order for the government to bring charges.
How federal wire fraud investigations work
The federal government gathers evidence in online scam cases through a variety of means. One common way is by obtaining search warrants. Law enforcement will obtain a search warrant from a judge authorizing them to search for and seize evidence related to the online scam. This may include computers, cell phones, bank records and other documents.
Another common way the federal government gathers evidence is through subpoenas. A subpoena is a legal document that orders someone to provide certain documents or testimony to law enforcement. The recipient of a subpoena is usually required to comply with the order or face penalties, such as fines or imprisonment. For online scams, the federal government can subpoena information from your internet service provider and any platforms you might be using to gather evidence about your actions online.
Federal investigations into online scams can take a significant amount of time. The FBI, USPIS and USSS all have very stringent guidelines they must follow in order to build a successful case. This often means that these agencies must gather a large amount of evidence before they can make an arrest.
In some cases, the federal government may work with state or local law enforcement to make an arrest. However, in many online scam cases, the federal government will act as the primary investigator and prosecutor.
The length of a federal investigation into online scams can vary greatly. It could be a few months, or it could take years. In some cases, the government might drop the investigation if it doesn’t feel like it has enough evidence to prosecute.
Penalties for participating in an online scam
If you are convicted of federal wire fraud, you could face a number of penalties. The maximum possible sentence is 20 years in prison. You could also be ordered to pay restitution to the victim or victims of the scam. This could amount to thousands or even millions of dollars. You could also be fined up to $250,000.
What should I do if I’ve been accused of participating in an online scam?
If you are under federal investigation, there are a few things you can look for. First, the government may send you a target letter informing you that you are the subject of an investigation. The letter will typically state the nature of the investigation and the crimes that you are suspected of committing.
The government may also contact you or your family and friends to try and gather information about you. Law enforcement may visit your home or place of employment to ask questions or seize evidence. You may also receive a subpoena ordering you to provide documents or testify before a grand jury.
If you are under federal investigation, it is important to seek legal representation. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help guide you through the process and protect your rights.
Robert M. Helfend is a federal criminal defense attorney with more than 30 years experience defending wire fraud cases. If you or someone you love has been accused of being involved in an online scam, call us today for a free case review – 800-834-6434.