Computer-age crime Credit card fraud: Federal, state courts have yet to address seriousness of electronic theft.

July 23, 1998

A CECIL County man was sentenced in federal court last week to a paltry 10 months for electronic credit and debit fraud, a crime of which Americans are increasingly and justifiably fearful.

In an elaborate scheme, Joseph Barcase, 49, used a high-powered camera and an "encoder" to steal people's ATM personal identification numbers and credit information. He bilked them of $74,000 and almost got away with it.

His punishment -- five months in a halfway house, five months of home detention and a $1,000 fine -- is disturbingly light for a premeditated crime with such serious implications for victims. The reason is not softness on the part of the judge, federal agents or prosecutors. U.S. agencies invested considerable effort and expense to catch Barcase. But Judge Andre M. Davis, who acknowledged the impact of credit fraud on victims, was bound by federal sentencing guidelines of 10 to 16 months.

The Barcase sentence reflects the fact that at both the federal and state levels our justice system has yet to address the seriousness and growing prevalence of this kind of white-collar crime. Had he been convicted in the state courts, where the emphasis is on tough prosecution only of violent crime, Barcase would likely have walked away scot-free.

At the federal level, where prosecutors routinely deal with theft in the millions and criminals with lengthy records, Barcase looks like a relatively small fish. Yet prosecutors note that had he stolen $74,000 from a bank he would be facing 25 years in jail under federal statutes.

That begs the question: Why should one method of stealing be treated so much more harshly than another -- especially when electronic criminals are harder to catch, more costly to prosecute and often wreak havoc on a greater number of victims?

Electronic criminals are destined to proliferate in the computer age. The judicial system at both levels needs to put more emphasis on prosecuting such miscreants and punishing them appropriately.

Pub Date: 7/23/98

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