What happens to computer criminals in jail?
October 23, 1998
by Kim S. Nash
(IDG) -- Hackers you know about. They violate computer systems, sometimes in fun and sometimes intending harm.
And then there are people who go to jail for using nasty computer tricks to steal money from companies or mess with information systems.
But what then? What happens to these guys - and they are all men - who serve prison time for computer crimes?
Interviews with a handful of convicts show they appear to have a list of regrets, ranging from remorse about doing their crimes to hating the fact that they got caught.
Some still get a kick out of their crimes, and others want to do penance and, as one inmate puts it, "get back on track" to a lawful existence.
Federal Inmate No. 40872-054
Vladimir Levin doesn't want to talk about his 1995 conviction. Levin, now 31, pleaded guilty to hacking into Citibank computers and using other people's passwords to transfer nearly $4 million to accounts in various countries.
England extradited him to the U.S. in 1995 after he was arrested at Heathrow Airport in London.
After serving a three-year term in a federal prison, he has lived since April in a federal detention center in Oakdale, La.
In the minimum-security facility, Levin complains, the library is thin and the bureaucracy is thick. "I basically don't see the light at end of tunnel," says Levin, whose heavily accented English betrays his roots in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Federal Inmate No. 61153-080
Christopher Lamprecht is three years into a five-year term at the low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Bastrop, Texas. He starts his day about 7 a.m.
After eating breakfast with 1,100 other inmates, the 26-year-old walks across the compound to a job sweeping, washing windows and doing other cleaning chores. Lamprecht makes $9 per month, a bit of a pay cut from the $2,000 (give or take) he got for each telecommunications board he stole and sold.
He works until 3:30 p.m., then goes to headcount. Dinner is 4:30 to 5 p.m., after which Lamprecht usually goes to the prison library to read or to use the typewriters. At 9 p.m., inmates must retreat to their housing units, each of which has six TV rooms.
"At 11:30, you're locked in all night until 6:30 a.m. That's your basic day," Lamprecht explains during a noisy telephone interview from jail.
Lamprecht wasn't convicted of a computer crime; he pleaded guilty to theft and money laundering related to the telecommunications gear scheme. But he contends he got a tougher sentence because details of his hacker past were included in a presentence report that heavily influenced the judge. In May 1995, a federal judge in Austin ordered Lamprecht to serve five years.
Lamprecht, who is known online as "Minor Threat," doesn't deny that he used to secretly invade corporate and government computers. But he says it has nothing to do with stealing boards. "In federal court," he says, "you plead guilty for one thing, but they sentence you for everything else."
Lamprecht is scheduled to go free next year, but the judge who sentenced him banned him from the Internet and stipulated that he can't hold a job that requires him to use a computer.
"What kind of job can I get without a computer?" wonders the onetime computer science major at the University of Texas in Austin. He didn't graduate, but hopes to resume his studies when he's released. Lamprecht is appealing the Internet ban, arguing that it violates his First Amendment rights. A judgment is expected in a few months.
Lamprecht took incarceration hard. Bitter when he was first locked up, he has gotten worse.
"He told me, 'I'm not gonna come out. I can't do it,' " says his mother, Michele Wood. "When you're 22, five years is one-quarter of your life."
Soon after, he tried to kill himself by swallowing 99 sleeping pills, recalls Wood, who is a computer trainer at a large insurance company in Dallas.
"I was hysterical," she says, recalling a call from her son after he had taken the pills. "My co-worker kept him on the line. I got on the other line and called the prison and said, 'Go get him.' "
After having his stomach pumped, Lamprecht's attitude changed, Wood says. He took responsibility for breaking the law and started making plans for his release.
On visiting days, Wood brings him print-outs of E-mail he receives at his Web site (www.paranoia.com/~mthreat/), which is maintained by a friend on the outside. A plea on the site recently snared Lamprecht a new lawyer - one who believes in his First Amendment position and will take his case pro bono.
"What will he be like when he comes out?" Wood wonders of her son. "How's he going to fit in? He's never seen Windows 95."
Most hackers you hear about are teen-agers or in their 20s, says John Klein, president of Rent-A-Hacker, a security troubleshooting firm in Newport News, Va.
Klein hears from at least one job-seeking computer cowboy every day. But he rejects most as immature or in it for the glory. His 9-year-old company has 73 hackers - he hires them as independent contractors - waiting for jobs. And he doesn't take convicts.
"A lot of people - including lots of young hackers - think that hackers who have gotten arrested or who dealt with the Secret Service are good. I've found that to be untrue," he says. "It's the ones you never hear about. Those are the hackers you need to be afraid of."
Federal Inmate No. 13112-064
Brian Martin admits that it was, in part, a search for fame that drew him to Oklahoma City after the 1995 bombing of the federal building there.
Martin, whose online aliases included "Forcible Entry" and "Iceman," snooped around the U.S. Department of Defense Web site for logos and other official-looking material to create fake identification cards and purchase orders for himself and a buddy. Dressed in camouflage fatigues, they flashed the bogus IDs and used a laptop to fax purchase orders to requisition $20,000 worth of two-way radios, computers, hotel rooms and meals.
Martin also finagled the use of a helicopter and pilot to fly over the Alfred P. Murrah building - airspace supposedly tightly restricted by the FBI, U.S. Department of State, U.S. Army and other government groups investigating the bombing. Martin later sold the video he shot from the sky to a French TV program.
Convicted of wire fraud, interstate transport of stolen goods and impersonating a federal officer, among other offenses, Martin claims he wasn't looking to take advantage of the high emotion after the bombing tragedy. Tony Lacy, his court-appointed lawyer, concurs. "He doesn't see it that way," says Lacy, who is at the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Oklahoma City. "He saw it as 'wouldn't this be cool.'"
Martin, now 25, says of his motivation: "I wondered, if these guys are supposed to be the best at security and I can get past them, then what am I?"
A rapid-fire conversationalist, Martin is eager to share details of his "sprees of doing crazy stuff," as he calls his criminal exploits. At 18, he pleaded guilty to credit-card fraud. At 19, he pleaded guilty to impersonating a police officer. And then there was the time in Colorado, where he got into computers at Drury Inns Inc. to book himself a free room and at a limousine company and a flower shop to order treats for his girlfriend and himself.
Like Lamprecht, Martin is in the Bastrop facility, 30 miles east of Austin. Having spent time in Texas state prison, Martin says he prefers the federal facility where he is now. "State scared me s--less. I was in a unit where they had 26 killings in one month," he says. "I'm 135 pounds. You don't want to be me when you go to prison."
The Oklahoma City incident came back to bite Martin and his partner hard, Lacy says. "Army Criminal Investigations Division, intelligence, national security - when they did find out that it was a couple of guys playing a prank because it would be cool, they were pissed," he says, marveling at Martin's penchant, even now in jail, for talking up his past.
"If anything, prison will make him smarter," Lacy speculates.
Martin's release is scheduled for December of next year. "I'm planning on going to work for some of these places that do firewalls," he says. "Like my dad does."
Nash is Computerworld's senior editor, investigative reports. Her Internet address is email@example.com.
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