If Your Ex Hacks Your Email, Can You Sue?

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Many of us have read about “revenge porn,” where an ex circulates sexually explicit pictures with the intent to embarrass or harass the former lover. But a vengeful ex can do much more damage if that ex has a certain level of computer sophistication and can illegally access – “hack” – your personal email or social media accounts. Sadly, these types of actions have become far more commonplace, but the law does have remedies – if you act fast.

To take one example: Chantay Sewell and Phil Bernardin had a relationship for nine years. Sewell had a private email and Facebook account, and she shared the passwords to these accounts with no one, including Bernardin. After the two ended their relationship, Sewell discovered she could not access her email or Facebook accounts, as the passwords for both accounts had been altered. Worse, Sewell discovered that malicious emails sent from her account to other people, including family members, that contained defamatory information about her sexual activities. Similar defamatory comments appeared on her Facebook posts. As a result of this dissemination, Sewell lost her job.

Sewell did some investigating through her Internet service provider and discovered that her ex’s computer had been used to access her email and Facebook accounts. Armed with this information, she brought suit under two federal statutes – the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and the Stored Communications Act (SCA), both of which not only criminalize unauthorized access to a protected computer but allows the victim of the “hack” to sue for damages within two years of the discovery of the event. Sewell encountered a problem in pursuing her legal claim: she did not bring the suit within two years of the “hack” of the email account because of the time taken to discover the identity of the hacker.

The federal courts have held that the statute of limitations does not toll until the time of discovery, so once you discover a breach, you should file suit well within the limitations period, even if against a John Doe defendant, and make every effort to identify the hacker within the two year period. Another way to help your civil case is to encourage a criminal case: the federal government has the ability to procure a search warrant and determine if your suspected hacker has left a digital trail.

Various state laws may be of use as well, with more generous statutes of limitations. You would want to look into that possibility depending on the state where the hack took place.

Also, common law torts like defamation or tortious interference with a business relationship or false light privacy actions could provide avenues of relief with longer statutes of limitations but different burdens of proof.

The bottom line: if you have been a victim of a “hack,” you do have legal remedies, but you must act quickly.

If you have questions about suing an ex for hacking your email or social media accounts, contact us – we can help.