NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Police have charged a Florida man with a third-degree felony charge, after he was arrested for accessing a St. Petersburg resident's wireless Internet network without permission.
According to the police, Benjamin Smith III was seen by Richard Dinon outside Dinon's home on the night of April 20, 2005, sitting in a parked SUV and using a laptop computer. When Dinon went outside to deposit his trash, Smith quickly closed the laptop and tried to hide it.
Dinon also stated that he later observed foreign icons on his home computer screen, and suspected that Smith, 41, may have been using his network. He called police and an officer confronted Smith at 11:30 p.m., two hours after the initial sighting.
"The arresting officer wasn't initially sure a violation took place," said George Kajtsa of the St. Petersburg Police Department. "He consulted our legal staff and they looked up the relevant statute."
The charge, unauthorized access to a computer network, applies to all varieties of computer network breaches, and gives prosecutors considerable leeway depending on the severity. It carries a potential sentence ranging from probation to 5 years in prison.
Smith faces a pretrial hearing on Monday, July 11.
"The sentence we'll seek depends on whether he was accessing the Internet for basic personal use, or using it for pecuniary gain -- like identity theft -- or other illicit reasons," said Fred Schaub of Florida's State Attorney's office.
Smith's motives in using the network are unclear, but the laptop was confiscated from him at the time of arrest and will be analyzed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).
Bob Breeden of the Computer Crime Center at FDLE said it was only the third case of unauthorized wireless access in Florida.
Wireless networks are becoming more prevalent with the spread of broadband Internet access, and many consumers are not aware of how to configure their networks to avoid unauthorized access.
"Law enforcement is behind the curve in confronting computer crime," said Breeden. "Wireless networks are only just starting to be recognized."
He said that Florida had launched extensive measures to educate consumers about risks associated with new technologies, including an informational Web site and a free 8-hour program available across the state.
"More and more people are buying wireless routers and not educating themselves about the consequences," he said. "People are very haphazard about security, and the stakes are high."
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