Services' E-Mail Hacking Illegal, but Officials Need More Than That to Prosecute

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By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 7, 2009

When Elaine Cioni found out that her married boyfriend had other girlfriends, she became obsessed, federal prosecutors say. So she turned to YourHackerz.com.

And for only $100, YourHackerz.com provided Cioni, then living in Northern Virginia, with the password to her boyfriend's AOL e-mail account, court records show. For another $100, she got her boyfriend's wife's e-mail password. And then the passwords of at least one other girlfriend and the boyfriend's two children. None had any clue what Cioni was doing, they would later testify.

Cioni, however, went further and began making harassing phone calls to her boyfriend and his family, using a "spoofing" service to disguise her voice as a man's. This attracted the attention of federal authorities, who prosecuted Cioni, 53, in Alexandria last year for unauthorized access to computers, among other crimes. She was convicted and is serving a 15-month sentence.

But such services as YourHackerz.com are still active and plentiful, with clever names like "piratecrackers.com" and "hackmail.net." They boast of having little trouble hacking into such Web-based e-mail systems as AOL, Yahoo, Gmail, Facebook and Hotmail, and they advertise openly.

And, experts said, there doesn't appear to be much anyone can do about it.

"This is an important point that people haven't grasped," said Peter Eckersley, a staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. "We've been using e-mail for years, and it's been insecure all that time. . . . If you have any hacker who is competent and spends the time and targets you, he's going to get you."

Federal law prohibits hacking into e-mail, but without further illegal activity, it's only a misdemeanor, noted Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University and a former trial attorney in the Justice Department's computer crime section.

"The feds usually don't have the resources to investigate and prosecute misdemeanors," Kerr said. "And part of the reason is that normally it's hard to know when an account has been compromised, because e-mail snooping doesn't leave a trace."

Every state has laws roughly similar to the federal computer laws, Kerr said, and rate the offenses as misdemeanors.

Not long after Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska was named the Republican nominee for vice president last year, someone hacked into her personal Yahoo e-mail accounts. And as the election neared, someone at George Mason University hacked into the e-mail of the school's provost and sent a schoolwide e-mail saying the election date had been changed.

"Web Based email password hacking or cracking is one of our all time favourite and unique hobby," write the folks at YourHackerz.com. It's not clear where YourHackerz.com is located, but experts suspect that most of the businesses are based overseas. "We will provide you with the original Passwords. No questions asked whatsoever. Payment only after you are CONVINCED. 100% guarantee of Cracking. Total privacy of your information. No legal hassles."

At SlickHackers.com, they boast, "We are professionals interested in helping serious people for whom an email password would mean saving their marriage, knowing the truth, preventing a fraud, protecting their family/job/interests only when conventional ways and normal procedures do not work."


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