A recent decision from the United Kingdom held that it is possible to defraud a machine, as well as a human being.
The case is Renault UK Limited v. FleetPro Technical Services Limited, Russell Thoms (High Court of Justice Queen’s Bench Division) (November 23, 2007),  EWHC 2541. According to the opinion, FleetPro Technical Services operated a program with Renault UK that let members of the British Air Line Pilots Association (BALPA) buy new Renaults at a discount. In the ten months the program was in effect, FleetPro sent 217 orders through the system, only 3 of which were submitted by members of BALPA. According to the opinion, Russell Thoms, FleetPro’s director and employee, placed the other 214 orders and passed on the discounts to brokers who sold the cars to members of the public.
Renault discovered what had been going on and sued FleetPro and Thoms for fraud. At trial, the defense counsel argued that there was no fraud because there was, in effect, no fraudulent representation made by one human being to another. The court described the relevant facts as follows:
hat happened when orders produced by Mr. Thoms and sent by e-mail as attachments to Mr. Johnstone [the Renault fleet sales executive who handled the orders] were received was that he opened them, printed them off and gave them to Fiona Burrows to input into a computer system information including the BALPA FON [the code used to process orders]. The evidence was that no human mind was brought to bear at the Importer's end on the information put into the computer system by Fiona Burrows. No human being at the Importer consciously received or evaluated the specific piece of information in respect of each relevant order that it was said to fall within the terms of the BALPA Scheme. . . . [T[he last human brain in contact with the claim that a particular order fell within the terms of the BALPA Scheme was that of Fiona Burrows at the Dealer. The point of principle which thus arises is whether it is possible in law to find a person liable in deceit if the fraudulent misrepresentation alleged was made not to a human being, but to a machine.
Renault UK Limited v. FleetPro Technical Services Limited, supra.
Judge Richard Seymour held that it is, in fact, possible to hold someone liable when a fraudulent misrepresentation is made to a machine:
I see no objection . . . to holding that a fraudulent misrepresentation can be made to a machine acting on behalf of the claimant, rather than to an individual, if the machine is set up to process certain information in a particular way in which it would not process information about the material transaction if the correct information were given. For the purposes of the present action, . . . a misrepresentation was made to the Importer when the Importer's computer was told that it should process a particular transaction as one to which the discounts for which the BALPA Scheme provided applied, when that was not in fact correct.
Renault UK Limited v. FleetPro Technical Services Limited, supra.
After I read this decision, I did some research to see if I could find any reported American cases addressing the issue. I could not.
I’m not sure why. Maybe the argument simply has not been raised (which, of course, means that it may be, and some U.S. court will have to decide whether to follow this approach or not).
Or maybe the reason it hasn’t come up has to do with the way American statutes, or at least American criminal statutes, go about defining the use of a computer to defraud. Basically, the approach these statutes take is to make it a crime to access a computer “or any part thereof for the purpose of: . . . executing any scheme or artifice to defraud”. Idaho Code § 18-2202. You see very similar language in a many state computer crime statutes, and the basic federal computer crime statute has language that is analogous. See 18 U.C. Code § 1030(a)(4) (crime to knowingly “and with intent to defraud” access a computer without authorization or by exceeding authorized access and thereby further “the intended fraud”).
So maybe the issue of defrauding a machine hasn’t arisen in U.S. criminal law because our statutes are essentially tool statutes. That is, they criminalize using a computer as a tool to execute a “scheme or artifice to defraud.”
In the U.K. case, Renault was claiming that Thoms had defrauded it by submitting false purchase orders for discounted cars. The defense’s position was that to recover Renault would have to show that Thoms had intentionally made a false statement of fact directly to Renault, intending that Renault rely on the representation to its detriment. And that is the classic dynamic of fraud. Historically, fraudsters lied directly to their victims to induce them to part with money or other valuables. That is why, as I’ve mentioned before, fraud was originally known as “larceny by trick:” The fraudster in effect stole property from the victim by convincing him to hand it over to the fraudster in the belief he would profit by doing so. Here, the distortion of fact is direct and immediate; the victim hands over the property because he believes what the perpetrator has told (or written) him.
Many American fraud statutes predicate their definition of fraud crimes on executing a “scheme or artifice to defraud,” language that comes from the federal mail fraud statute, 18 U.S. Code § 1341. Section 1341, which dates back to 1872, makes it a crime to send anything through the mail for the purpose of executing a “scheme or artifice to defraud.” It was enacted in response to activity that is functionally analogous to online fraud: After the Civil War, con artists were using the U.S. mails to defraud many people remotely and anonymously. The sponsor of the legislation said it was needed “to prevent the frauds which are mostly gotten up in the large cities . . . by thieves, forgers, and rapscallions generally, for the purpose of deceiving and fleecing the innocent people in the country.” McNally v. United States, 483 U.S. 350 (1987). So § 1341 is really a fraud statute; it merely utilizes the “use of the mail to execute a scheme or artifice to defraud” language as a way to let the federal government step in an prosecute people who are committing what is really a garden variety state crime: fraud.
But as I said, many modern state computer crime statutes also use the “scheme or artifice to defraud” terminology. To some extent, that may simply be an artifact, a result of the influence federal criminal law has on the states; we have grown accustomed to phrasing fraud provisions in terms of executing schemes or artifices to defraud, so that language migrated to computer crime statutes.
Does that language eliminate the problem the U.K. court deal with? Does it eliminate the need to consider whether it is possible to defraud a machine by predicating the crime on using a computer to execute a scheme to defraud instead of making it a crime to make false representations directly to another person for the purpose of inducing them to part with their property?
On the one hand, it might. Under computer crime statutes modeled upon the mail fraud statute, the crime is committed as soon as the perpetrator makes any use of a computer for the purposes of completing a scheme to defraud a human being. Courts have long held that you can be charged with violating the federal mail fraud statute as soon as you deposit fraudulent material into the mail; it’s not necessary that the material actually have reached the victim, been read by the victim and induced the victim to give the perpetrator her property.
I think the same approach applies to computer crime statutes based on the mail fraud statute: the computer fraud offense is committed as soon as the perpetrator makes use of a computer with the intent of furthering his goal of defrauding a human being out of their property. Under that approach, it doesn’t really matter whether a person was actually defrauded, or whether a computer was defrauded. It’s enough that the perpetrator used a computer in an effort to advance his goal of defrauding someone.
I suspect this accounts for the fact that I, anyway, can’t find any U.S. cases addressing the issue of whether or not it is possible to defraud a computer. It’s an issue that may not be relevant in criminal fraud cases. It may, however, arise in civil fraud cases where, I believe, you would actually have to prove that “someone” was defrauded out of their property by the defendant’s actions.