Many of the crimes you can commit with MAJOR consequences don’t feel like crimes at all… because you can do them while laying around your home in your PJ’s !
The internet has massively expanded over the past few decades, and hardly a day goes by where you don’t go online. While you may have grown up with it, adults and some lawmakers are still adjusting to online life. Even if it doesn’t feel like it to you, it’s a new area of law, and that means that adults don’t talk about online crimes with young people as much as other choices and events you might think of as “normal crimes”.
While laws against things like violence and theft are obvious, computer crimes aren’t really general knowledge, and it can be easy to overlook them if you’re not careful. Nowadays, you can easily commit crimes in the comfort of your home, in your pajamas, and you may not even know that you’re at risk of breaking the law! At Project REAL, we created a phrase we think will be helpful for young people like you:
Pajama crimes are any kind of crime you can commit from the comfort of your home, while wearing your pajamas….and they’re a huge risk to everyone! That’s because unlike crimes that have been crimes for a long time (violence, theft, property destruction, etc), pajama crimes are unlikely to lead to a criminal getting caught in the act.
Think about it: If you set something on fire, there’s a chance someone can drive up and witness you do it, then chase you down or call the police. If you steal a candybar from a 7-11 after school, the store clerk might catch you or flag down an officer that happens to be driving by. If you get in a fight, there’s a good chance a neighbor will call the police then come over to break it up. When you’re online though, there aren’t any witnesses in the moment: There’s no store to run out of if you steal a movie. There’s no witness nearby to see you ‘destroy’ the code of a video game. There’s no nosy neighbor to interrupt you as you threaten a classmate with violence. That doesn’t mean you won’t get tracked down, charged, and eventually found guilty of crimes though.
The false sense of security from being in your home (and maybe in your pjs) is what makes pajama crimes so dangerous. That danger is why they’re so important to understand!
Just like in the real world, there are laws covering all corners of activity on the internet, and being aware of the different ways that you can run into legal trouble online is the first step to avoiding it. From video game chats to online stock trading, these several examples show how easy it is to make one wrong move and be looking at serious consequences.
In 2019, a high schooler in Florida was arrested for vowing to shoot up his school with his father’s assault rifle over a chat in an online game. Someone saw the chat, reported it, and it was referred to the local Florida Sheriff’s department after the FBI collected the relevant information. Because of the “Red Flag” laws regarding school shooting threats in Florida, the student was arrested and charged with a felony for a written threat to commit a mass shooting.
While it may have been meant as a poor attempt at a joke, it was still considered a very serious comment and raised a lot of alarms, even through a game chat. The government may not be combing through every single chat sent on something like Xbox Live, but chats are reported all the time, and they could easily get referred to the FBI, no matter the original intent of the message.
Because of the lack of face-to-face interaction on the internet, it’s easy to forget that there are real people on the other side, and that your actions can still have real world consequences. One illustration of people not fully understanding the consequences of their online actions is swatting. “Swatting” – an online prank where users call the police on someone that they had a disagreement with – has recently become more common. Not only does this waste the time and resources of the police department, but it can lead to criminal charges for anyone found to be involved in the false report.
In 2019, a 19-year-old named Casey Viner was arrested for playing a part in “swatting” someone he had a disagreement with while online gaming with horrible unintended consequences. When the police SWAT team breached the house that was called in, they mistook the owner of the home as a threat and accidently shot and killed him, even though he wasn’t the person Viner and his friend, Tyler Barriss, had a disagreement with. Barriss was the one that made the false police report, but Viner was still charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice for the part that he played in the death. Mr. Barriss was sentenced to 20 years in prison because of other threats he had made before over the phone. A single prank phone call caused by a video game led to serious jail time for both men, and the death of an innocent bystander.
Another example of the ‘pajama crime environment’ making crimes not feel like crimes can be seen in the hacking and cheating that occurs in online video games. Anyone can modify and create cheats in a game, but the moment that they’re used online, it crosses the boundary into illegal behavior. In July of 2022, Bungie (an online video game creator) sued one of their users for using hacks in one of their multiplayer games. Because the hacker improperly changed Bungie’s property, the company at the time of the article was suing him for $2,000 for each time he used the hack, and $150,000 for misusing their intellectual property. Companies are merciless when it comes to protecting their products, and the fines in civil court can end up being much larger than those from a criminal charge.
It’s not just video games that can draw the attention of law enforcement. Because of the ease of online trading over a smartphone, almost anyone can actively trade on the stock market now; it’s not just reserved for people on Wall Street. The appeal of the easy money of trading stocks can lure a lot of people in, but “white collar” crimes that come with the stock market still apply, even if it’s happening online.*
*“White collar crimes” are usually focused on money: Things like stock-trading crimes including manipulating a stock by lying about the company online or making trades using illegal information.
The expansion of the internet led to the opportunity to make money. With the widespread access to the stock market thanks to online trading apps like RobinHood, almost anyone can actively trade in the stock market. But with new opportunities come new possible legal troubles, and stock trading can lead to an entire new area of legal consequences if someone isn’t careful.
Stock trading is a method of making money where someone invests in a company that they think will grow sometime soon by buying a small percentage of the company for funding towards the company. As the company grows, that percentage of the company (stock) will hopefully get more valuable as the company starts making more money. Eventually, they sell the stock back to the company for actual money after the stock is worth more than they paid for.
While it sounds like a nice, easy way to make money, stock trading comes with a lot of risk. No companies or stocks are guaranteed to go up, so it’s just as likely that an investment will be worth less that was paid when all is said and done. Not only is a lot of money constantly at stake, but if you make any sketchy trades, it could mean huge fines and jail time for stock fraud.
An example of severe consequences comes from a company called Wealthpire, run by a man named Manny Backus, A.K.A. Manuel Jesus. Mr. Backus started a web-based blog where he claimed to have made millions in the stock market and offered people the chance to follow all the active trades that he made. However, Backus made false claims about his success in the stock market and lied about the trades that he made while still taking the money from clients. This slight misstep online gained the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who oversee the stock market, and forced the company to settle with a whopping $1.5 million fine for stock fraud. Laws can be very technical, and while it may not seem like you’re doing something wrong, veering even a little over the line can lead to serious consequences.
Trading stocks online, even publishing your active stock trades, is not inherently considered illegal. In 2014, a 16-year-old named Connor Bruggermann made almost $300,000 trading stocks online and was using the same model that was seen with the Wealthpire example. Bruggermann was able to avoid legal trouble but was still taking huge risks. With stock trading, especially online, all it takes is one wrong click or decision, and the $300,000 could be gone in the blink of an eye.
Gambling online is another attempt at making money, but, like stock trading, that can lead to a lot of legal complications. In 2017, an idea involving two Youtubers and a video game gambling site led to the two gamers involved paying a huge fine to the Federal Trade Commission. The two video stars showed a website where you could gamble Counter-Strike: Global Offensive skins with the chance to win big with rare items. One of the men even showed himself winning a jackpot on his channel to show it was possible, leading to a large influx of activity on the site.
Not only is internet gambling illegal for juveniles in the United States, and not only was it seen as encouraging minors to gamble, but the website that the two men were promoting was owned by them. They used their platform and pretended that they weren’t involved to get more money out of people losing, as those in-game items do have real money value. While these two men were caught and hit with a fine, there are still plenty of online scams that slip through unnoticed by law enforcement and even sometimes by you.
What you say and post online can have serious consequences as well. You have surely been told about the possible consequences of bullying, and cyberbullying is no exception to that rule. In 2006, Megan Meier was friended and began chatting with an older boy named Josh Evans, and the two quickly formed a relationship. However, after about a month in, there was a sudden switch in Evans’ behavior, and Megan’s page was suddenly flooded with mean and hateful comments. Megan had a previous history of struggles with depression and ended her life less than a day after receiving all of the messages.
While back in 2006, there were no laws against cyberbullying, there are now laws protecting kids against vicious attacks online. Cyberbullying, if you’re a minor, can lead to fines, community service, and even up to six months in jail time, just for tapping a few keys from your home computer.
However, with Ms. Meier’s case, it was actually a parent of one of Megan’s old friends that created a fake account to gain her trust and then bully her. Because of the potential anonymity of talking online, and the fact that we only interact with a screen, it’s easy to forget that there’s a real person on the other end, and for comments to quickly get out of hand. It is unforgiveable that a mother drove a child to suicide, and it’s a reminder to fully understand any possible consequences before you speak online, because it could be the difference between life and death.
These are just scratching the surface of the different ways that your behavior online can stir up a lot of trouble. Because so much of our lives are online, it’s easy to forget that what we say and do online can still affect our offline lives, especially when those consequences can come weeks or months after the crime took place. Being aware of the laws online is a good step in the right direction, but as our lives move more and more online, being conscious of your actions will be the most important thing you can do to stay safe.
Be sure to provide full explanations for each of your answers. For more details, you can read the articles this piece was sourced from here:
Contributed by: Ethan Champagne
Edited by: Mike Kamer