Extortion has been a crime in California for many years, but certain online conduct involving “ransomware” may soon lead to these types of charges under proposed legislation. Ransomware is software that is installed on a computer to hold hostage the user’s data, pending receipt of a designated amount of money. The L.A. Times recently reported on the bill, which was initially proposed in July 2016 and sent to the Governor’s desk for approval in late August. California already has various laws in effect prohibiting different internet theft crimes, but this one specifically includes ransomware as extortion. A criminal defense lawyer can tell you more about California law on extortion crimes, but here are the answers to a few common questions.
Is Ransomware Extortion in California ?
The crime of extortion in California requires:
1. Using threats, force, or intimidation to compel someone to turnover property or pay money;
2. Using threats, force, or intimidation to compel a public official to engage in some activity; or,
3. A public official using his or her office to compel someone to turnover property or pay money.
How is ransomware a crime of extortion in California?
Ransomware would typically fall under #1 above, though it’s possible that it could be used against or by a public official. The software is considered extortion because it takes over a user’s computer and the data stored within, and will not relinquish control until the money or property is paid to the offender. The ransomware itself represents the threat or intimidation, even though there is no physical force involved. If and when the new law is signed by the governor, ransomware will be specifically included in the definition of “extortion” under California law.
What are the legal consequences of ransomware extortion in California?
The punishment for an extortion conviction in California depends on whether the activity is charged as a felony or misdemeanor. In most cases, the crime is considered a felony punishable by a two- to four-year prison sentence and fine up to $10,000. For extortion cases involving a smaller amount of money, the extortion charge may be a misdemeanor that carries a one-year jail sentence.
Defenses to Ransomware Extortion
There are defenses to the charges, whether you’re charged with implementing ransomware or some other extortion-based activity.
· You didn’t threaten or intimidate the person to give you property or money;
· You can disprove the allegations with evidence to the contrary; or,
· There isn’t enough evidence to support a conviction for extortion.
In addition, there is a statute of limitations on extortion which may be a defense in your case. The time period for bringing extortion charges is five years for a felony and two years in a misdemeanor case.
The new bill recognizing ransomware as an extortion crime is not yet on the books, but similar schemes may be punishable under general laws of extortion and theft. Therefore, if you’ve been charged with this type of crime, it’s important to consult with an attorney that has extensive experience in extortion, fraud, embezzlement, and other offenses. Please contact a criminal defense attorney in San Diego who can help you work through the complicated proceedings in California.
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