Digital Fraud

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 78% of all U.S. households have a desktop computer and 75% have a smartphone or ‘handheld computer’.[1] Much of the world has become digital and it is estimated that almost two Zettabytes of data exists.[2] To put it in perspective, the original iPhone had four Gigabytes of data capacity and you would need around 500 billion iPhones to hold today’s data. Due to the ever-increasing use of computers and the internet, fraud has become more complex. Things that had to be done in person earlier can now be done behind a computer from far way. Fortunately, on average, it is difficult to erase a fraudster’s electronic tracks. This is where digital forensics come in.

Digital forensics uses computer science and investigation techniques to discover electronic evidence.  Digital forensics can be put into two areas:

  • Computer forensics
  • Network forensics

The former focuses on evidence in computers and similar devices and the latter towards evidence on network systems. The common denominator for both areas is digital evidence. Unlike physical evidence, digital evidence is always stored on some medium in the form of binary data—zeros and ones.

In order to present data easily readable to an average person, a team of a digital forensic specialist and a forensic accountant is often needed. Their job is to collect, analyze, interpret, and present the digital data to decision makers and perhaps a court of law.

In digital forensics some legal issues can arise during an investigation. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from engaging in unreasonable searches and seizures. It essentially requires a government agency to obtain a search warrant in many instances. Digital forensic investigations also encounter legal rights where an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy. As technology advances, so do gray areas where investigators operate. Abiding by the Fourth Amendment can be become difficult when trying to apply 18th century logic to 21st century technology. In an environment of computers and networks, the concept of search and seizure becomes abstract. Thus, a digital forensics team must use care in their work from a legal perspective whether for criminal or civil purposes.

Even though technology makes the job of finding fraud evidence more difficult, a digital forensics team is often able to find places where data can be retrieved.  It is the job of the team to be able to remove the obstacles in the collection of electronic data and transform it into a concrete form of evidence that others can understand.

Digital forensic investigations are costly because they require time and experts.  If a suspected digital fraud is criminal, a law enforcement agency may perform the investigation if the digital evidence has been preserved. If not done by law enforcement, organizations and individuals are left paying for a costly digital investigation themselves.

[1] Ryan, C. & Lewis, J. M. (2017, September).  Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2015. U.S. Census Bureau. American Community Survey Reports. (ACS-37). Retrieved on October 22, 2018 from
[2] Barnett, T., Jr. (2016, September 9).  The Zettabyte Era Officially Begins (How Much is That?) [Web log post].  Retrieved on October 22, 2018 from