What is Cybercrime? - Definition, History, Types & Laws

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  • 0:02 What is Cybercrime?
  • 0:45 History
  • 1:31 Types
  • 1:49 Laws and Penalties
  • 2:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

In this lesson, you'll learn what constitutes cybercrime and examine its historical origins. You'll also look at the different types of cybercrime and the laws governing this type of crime.

What is Cybercrime?

Have you ever received an email saying you have inherited five million dollars from a prince in another country? According to the email, all you need to do is provide the sender with your bank account number, and he'll put the money in your account, making you an instant millionaire! Sometimes, this scheme actually works. As a result, unfortunate individuals who provided the prince with their bank account numbers later discovered that their accounts had been cleaned out.

Cybercrime consists of illegal activity conducted on a computer. Traditional crimes may be committed while using a computer, but cybercrime consists of more specific types of crimes, such as phishing schemes and viruses.


Cybercrime first started with hackers trying to break into computer networks. Some did it just for the thrill of accessing high-level security networks, but others sought to gain sensitive, classified material. Eventually, criminals started to infect computer systems with computer viruses, which led to breakdowns on personal and business computers.

Computer viruses are forms of code or malware programs that can copy themselves and damage or destroy data and systems. When computer viruses are used on a large scale, like with bank, government or hospital networks, these actions may be categorized as cyberterrorism. Computer hackers also engage in phishing scams, like asking for bank account numbers, and credit card theft.


There are various types of cybercrime, such as the ones we've just mentioned. They may include:

  • Credit card theft
  • Cyberterrorism
  • Electronic bullying and stalking
  • Hacking for fun
  • Identity theft
  • Network intrusions
  • Software piracy

Laws and Penalties

Some federal laws apply directly to cybercrime, such as computer fraud and abuse. For example, 18 U.S.C. Section 1030 criminalizes any conduct used to attack computer systems. A result of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), passed by Congress in 1986, this law applies not only to federal and banking computers, but also computers utilized in connection with interstate and foreign commerce. The statute protects them specifically from hacking, damage, espionage and fraud. Criminal penalties can range from 1 to 20 years. For example, hacking into someone else's computer or stealing passwords may carry a 1-year jail term. Someone who steals national security information may receive a 20-year sentence.

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