Senate Bill 1003, patroned by the 38th District’s Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Lebanon, would make it a Class 1 misdemeanor to use an Internet-capable computer in committing a hoax to get a person or business to expend money on the person committing that hoax.
The bill also would also eliminate the defense that a perpetrator did not receive any direct or indirect financial benefit from the act.
Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp III, who was the special prosecutor in the case of Elizabeth Ann Jones, requested Chafin’s introduction of the bill after Jones pleaded in June 2019 to eight felony counts of obtaining money or goods under false pretenses in 2018.
Slemp said that while Jones used social media and the Internet to defraud a California couple of restaurant meals, toys and baby clothes, there was no state law covering financial benefit from using a computer and Internet connection in the scheme.
“However, if Jones had not benefited financially from the hoax, she would have escaped prosecution despite her intentional acts to harm others,” Slemp said. “That’s why this bill is needed. It prevents others, like Jones, from slipping through the loophole in the computer crimes laws of our commonwealth.”
Matt and Laura Trayte had set up a website and Facebook page to arrange an adoption with an expecting mother when Jones contacted them and told the couple she was pregnant and wanted them to adopt the child.
After months of the couple buying meals, gifts and other items, Jones sent the couple photos of bloody sheets and told them she had gone into early labor. After the Traytes flew to Kingsport to help Jones, they found that the pregnancy was a fake.
“It is our hope that this bill will send a clear message to those that intend to use the internet to hurt others in Virginia will be held accountable for their actions,” Matt Trayte said in a statement Tuesday.
“We also wanted to turn something horrible into something good by bringing awareness to this type of adoption fraud,” Laura Trayte said. “Now, we hope that this legislation will become law so that no one else suffers the pain and heartache that we have experienced.”
Chafin said the bill, if it clears the Senate Judiciary Committee and passes both houses of the General Assembly, will help close a loophole in Virginia computer crime law.
“The Internet is an important tool that allows for instant communication and commerce across the country,” Chafin said Tuesday. “Unfortunately, it also is a tool used by criminals to inflict pain and suffering on innocent victims. It is my hope that this bill will provide additional protections for victims like Matt and Laura Trayte against computer crimes in the commonwealth.”