Tenth Circuit Upholds Conviction for Identity Theft and Wire Fraud Using Craigslist Scam – U.S. v. Lawrence

December 5, 2011 by David S. Seltzer

As a Miami hacking criminal defense lawyer, I was interested to see an appeals court decision about an Internet crime that involved theft rather than sexual exploitation. In United States v. Lawrence, the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a conviction for a man who took part in a scheme to defraud people who had trouble paying their bills. Wallace Laverne Lawrence III was convicted at a jury trial of seven counts of wire fraud, two counts of fraud in connection with devices and one count of aggravated identity theft, with sentence enhancements for being a leader of the scheme and for obstruction of justice. He challenged the sufficiency of the evidence for every count, but the Tenth Circuit saw no problems with the evidence and upheld the convictions.

Lawrence was part of a group of people who placed ads on Craigslist and on flyers to find people who had trouble paying their bills and faced threats like utility disconnection. The group promised to pay the bills in full in exchange for a cash payment of half the amount owed, payable only after verification from creditors that the bills had been paid. The group paid the bills with credit card numbers stolen from the medical offices where Lawrence’s girlfriend, Sandra Acuna, worked. Acuna and two other women would act as couriers for the cash, and the phone numbers used were prepaid cell phones. Once the true owners of the cards discovered and reversed the charges, Lawrence and his associates would disappear. Lawrence’s seven wire fraud charges referred to Craigslist posts; the aggravated identity theft count refers to the stolen credit card numbers. He was convicted on all counts and appealed.

Lawrence’s appeal argued that the evidence for the convictions was insufficient, but the Tenth Circuit found these arguments without merit. On the wire fraud charges, Lawrence argued that there was not enough evidence to show that he personally placed the online advertisements that formed the basis of the charges. However, the Tenth said, because the charges had an alternative “aiding and abetting” theory, it was not necessary for prosecutors to show that he personally placed the ads, as long as he or a co-conspirator placed the ads. Indeed, three of them were traced to his home computer. Because those convictions were valid, the court said, Lawrence’s challenge to his aggravated identity theft charge, which must be based on an underlying felony like wire fraud, must also fail. Finally, Lawrence challenged sentence enhancements for both being a leader of the scheme and obstruction of justice — based on a recorded phone call in which Lawrence urged Acuna to lie — but the Tenth rejected both challenges, finding clear evidence for both enhancements.

As a south Florida identity theft criminal defense attorney, I’m always interested to see a criminal appeal in this area. Lawrence faced federal charges in this case, of course. Most defendants in his situation would, since even a Craigslist posting intended to sell an item in the same city is likely to use out-of-state servers, and thus be involved in interstate commerce. This is all that’s needed to trigger federal jurisdiction. But Florida defendants can also face state charges for many of the same offenses. This could include credit card fraud, offenses against computer users and offenses against intellectual property. As in this case, there is often a question about whether the person charged actually took the offending online actions — police can trace an IP address, but can rarely show that a particular person was using the computer. As a Fort Lauderdale cyber crime defense lawyer, I use these and other defenses whenever appropriate to defend my clients.

Seltzer Law, P.A., represents clients around the United States who are facing serious online crime or Internet crime charges. Founded by David Seltzer, a former cyber crime prosecutor, our firm has substantial experience sorting out the complex legal and technological issues surrounding cyber crimes. For a free, confidential case evaluation, call us 24 hours a day and seven days a week at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us a message online.

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