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Alexa and Uber Take the Stand: Your Data as a Witness

Silicon Valley’s amazing technology has made our lives easier. Voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa can tell us the weather, play our favorite music on command, and add grocery items to our shopping lists. With the tap of a button, we can catch a ride using the Uber app. Countless other products offer similar conveniences and provide greater simplicity to our lives. However, this added convenience comes with strings attached.

By using these products, we generate vast amounts of data. These giant tech companies store that information to improve their products (and their targeted advertising). This data is increasingly entering the crosshairs of law enforcement to investigate and prosecute crimes. By putting enough pieces of your digital footprint together, law enforcement can generate a pretty complete picture of a person’s life.

Law enforcement is relying more and more on digital evidence because of how enlightening (or incriminating) this information can be. Warrants for a cell phone search are commonplace in today’s world, but as Silicon Valley develops newer products, law enforcement sees additional opportunities to gather evidence.

Recently, police in Arkansas turned their sights on an Amazon Echo smart speaker found in a murder suspect’s home. The Amazon Echo has a built-in microphone that is always listening, waiting for the user to issue a command. According to Amazon, the speaker only starts recording once it hears “Alexa.” Amazon stores the recorded commands or questions that follow in a database to improve its voice-recognition accuracy.

Police issued Amazon a search warrant for any data the speaker may have recorded on the night of the murder. Since a judge signed off on the warrant, Amazon became the last line of defense against turning over the data. Amazon refused to grant the request, citing the privacy concerns of its customers.

The murder suspect ultimately granted Amazon his consent to provide the data, moving the resolution of this legal showdown to another day. While Amazon was likely more concerned about future customer’s fear of losing their privacy, the takeaway is that this data may be easily obtainable if the company possessing it complies with the request.

The focus of this case was past data already recorded and stored, but something to consider is the possibility of tapping into the Amazon Echo’s microphone in real time. Law enforcement can obtain judicial authorization for a wiretap of a suspect’s electronic communications. Any internet-connected smart device with a microphone can theoretically be remotely activated without the user knowing, creating a bugging device. On a scarier note, hackers have demonstrated the ability to do this with ease. The average citizen probably has nothing to worry about, but public figures, politicians, journalists, etc. may want to weigh whether the convenience of these devices is worth the privacy risks they pose.

Another recent target of law enforcement has been data generated by Uber riders and drivers. Just as in the Amazon case, a judge approved the subpoena for these records. The likely trend will be that judges grant these requests with regularity. One can imagine these records being requested in a divorce or custody proceeding, revealing a spouse’s habitual Uber rides from the bar or to his or her paramour’s house.

Technology will continue to progress and tech companies will continue to vacuum up more and more data about our daily lives. It’s possible we may never be able to delete that data, or only with varying degrees of difficulty. When enjoying the conveniences of Silicon Valley technology, it must always be assumed a detailed trail will be left behind.


Fraud inevitably follows disasters, so authorities in Texas, Florida prepare for post-storm scams

Original Post: The Washington Post on September 8, 2017 by Tom Jackman

Amid each natural disaster such as Hurricane Harvey, there are inspiring tales of rescues and generosity and hope. And invariably, those are followed by tales of scams and frauds and storm survivors revictimized by those looking to capitalize on the relief system. The problem has become so bad that, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Justice Department established the National Center for Disaster Fraud, which receives hundreds of calls every month even when a cataclysm such as Harvey or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill isn’t occurring.

And now the calls are starting to roll in from Houston. Unscrupulous repair and removal contractors. Robo-calls about phony insurance schemes. FEMA “inspectors” charging for their services. The Texas attorney general’s office said Thursday that it has received more than 3,200 complaints about scams, fraud and price gouging since Aug. 25, for things such as $99 for a case of water. In Baton Rouge, where the National Disaster Fraud Center is located, the number of fraud reports went from 79 the week before Hurricane Harvey to 425 in the week after the storm hit, center director and U.S. Attorney Corey R. Amundson said.

“It’s a cascade of crime,” said Walt Green, Amundson’s predecessor as U.S. attorney in central Louisiana and head of the fraud center for the last four years. “Houston, and now Florida, this is not over in weeks or months. We’re talking a decade-plus.” He said before he stepped down earlier this year that the center received a call from a woman who was being pursued by the IRS for not paying taxes on her Katrina relief benefits from 12 years ago — which she had never sought or received.

In Houston, Amundson and the Justice Department last week formed a working group of various federal law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to specifically target crime related to Hurricane Harvey, with support from the fraud center, which serves as a national clearinghouse for fraud reports. In addition, “we’ve talked with Florida” as Hurricane Irma approaches, Amundson said in an interview. “We’re coordinating already. But the first priority of the Justice Department right now is to keep folks safe.”

Green said there were some predictable phases to disaster-related crime, often launched by “disaster chasers” — people who target disaster relief money or donations intended for charity. The national fraud center can sometimes detect repeat violators with its 12-year-old database of shady activity. Green said charity fraud is often the first to occur, with false websites set up to collect donations. When the National Weather Service releases its list of storm names each year, he said, people buy up domain sites such as “Irma Relief” or “Help Harvey” in hopes of fooling well-intentioned donors.

Investigators found 5,000 questionable Katrina-related websites after that storm, Green said, and not just from the area of the disaster, but nationwide. While Katrina was still slamming into Louisiana, a man in Florida launched “AirKatrina.com” claiming he was a private pilot performing rescues and needed money for fuel. He wrote that he saw people huddled on roofs and that “I will hear these screams for the rest of my life.” He was nowhere near Louisiana, but he raised $40,000 in two days, authorities said.

“The charity fraud danger period is right now” for Houston, Amundson said. “That’s usually for a couple more weeks.”

FEMA reported last week that scammers were also using robo-calls to tell people their flood insurance premiums were past due and they had to send money immediately or see their policies canceled. “That is pure fraud,” said Roy E. Wright of the National Flood Insurance Program of FEMA. “You should only be taking information from trusted sources.”

As the storm passes, contractors swoop in to clean up debris, take down trees and perform other clean-up tasks. Some will take money and simply disappear. Some will have FEMA benefits signed over to them. Some will actually do the work. Experts said victims can only tread carefully, do their homework, and hope they don’t get fleeced.

The next phase of disaster relief brings the largest amount of fraud — requests for relief payments for damages. Individuals who weren’t affected file claims. Businesses that weren’t near the disaster file false claims. Some fraudsters work hard to get their money, said Don Cazayoux, also a former U.S. attorney and director of the fraud center. “They would create really good false invoices,” Cazayoux said, “with false employee manifests, W-9 [tax forms]. You’ve got to really dig sometimes to figure it out.”

He said scammers would also steal the identities of actual victims and file for their relief funds before the victims did. “Identity theft is one of the most common forms” of fraud, Cazayoux said. From Katrina, more than 1,400 federal fraud prosecutions were launched, as well as untold numbers of state prosecutions. State attorneys general, particularly in New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy and in Texas now, have become more aggressive in fighting disaster fraud, Cazayoux said.

“Unfortunately,” Cazayoux said, “the best and worst comes out in national disasters.”

Because states have become aware of the lengths that scammers will go to for money, Green said, they have taken more time to investigate their legitimacy, and longer to pay benefits. He said relief recipients from Superstorm Sandy in 2012 sometimes had to wait 18 months or more, but that the investigations ensured that fewer phony claims were paid.

New Jersey authorities are still aggressively prosecuting fraud cases connected to Sandy relief. The state attorney general has filed 102 criminal cases and county prosecutors have filed another 95 cases, attorney general spokesman Peter Aseltine said. Among the more egregious examples were a man who posed as a Red Cross worker, collecting payments from storm victims on false promises of providing them with housing or automobiles, and a car dealer who sold Sandy-damaged vehicles to unsuspecting customers.

And then there’s the public corruption that accompanies the rebuilding phase of a disaster, as government officials steer contracts or equipment to friends, or themselves. In Louisiana, Amundson prosecuted a Shreveport area fire chief, Donovon R. McMullen Jr., who conspired to steal and sell more than $1 million worth of defibrillators shipped to the area for distribution in New Orleans after Katrina hit. When McMullen found out he was being investigated by the FBI, he tried to have one of his co-conspirators killed, court records show. McMullen was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison.

Gradually, the word spread that fraud enforcement was happening after Katrina. Around New Orleans, the Red Cross had distributed payments to supposed victims. But soon, money started coming back. “We got between $1 million and $1.5 million returned to the Red Cross by people who got money,” Amundson said. “They started seeing prosecutions, and they gave the money back.”

If you suspect fraud connected to a natural disaster, you can call the National Center for Disaster Fraud at 866-720-5721, or email the organization at disaster@leo.gov. The center serves as a national clearinghouse and refers cases to the proper law enforcement agency anywhere in the country.


Fighting Fraud Following Disaster: What to Watch out for

The waters recede, the winds calm, the storm passes. Finally, power returns to homes and neighborhoods, and the cleanup begins.

But as community members come together during the days following the storm to rebuild their city, clean up their parks, and feed their neighbors, scammers wait in the wings.  

The rush to provide aid to those in need following a disaster creates an ideal environment for fraudsters.  According to a report in The Washington Post, “In Baton Rouge, where the National Disaster Fraud Center is located, the number of fraud reports went from 79 the week before Hurricane Harvey to 425 in the week after the storm hit,” center director and U.S. Attorney Corey R. Amundson said.

One such fraud is the too-familiar business practice of price gouging. In fact, following Hurricane Harvey, Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton told CNBC of “reports of $99 cases of water, doubling and tripling of hotel room prices.”

Similarly, in the recent wake of Hurricane Irma, Floridians took to social media to complain about various airlines escalating their flight prices thousands of dollars for those trying to evacuate before the storm hit. Florida Attorney General, Pam Bondi, Bondi told The New York Times that Floridians logged more than 7,000 price-gouging complaints with her office.

Most states have laws against these unscrupulous practices, resulting in stiff penalties with high fines.

Other immediate fraud practices that may impact storm survivors:

  • The Better Business Bureau warns – beware of unlicensed contractors looking to rip-off homeowners.
  • Be on the lookout for robocalls. According to NPR, some reports from Florida claim that callers are posing as insurance agents demanding immediate payment for continuation of policies.
  • Watch out for charity scammers. Seemingly well-meaning people set up fake GoFundMe donation accounts to rake in money for themselves. Instead, if you wish donate to victims, find a reputable organization that can put your money to work.

Finally, following a declaration of a state of emergency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a federal agency dedicated to helping individuals, businesses, and communities recover and rebuild following a natural disaster, may step in. Unfortunately, according to The Washington Post, this phase of recovery often “brings the largest amount of fraud.”

According to Don Cazayoux, Cazayoux Ewing Law Firm Partner and former U.S. attorney and director of the National Disaster Fraud Center, “Scammers will often steal the identities of others who were actually affected by the disaster, file a claim for relief and divert the funds to themselves instead of the person who actually needs the assistance.”  

And because of the increased cases of identity fraud, federal agencies are “more aggressive in fighting disaster fraud related to identity theft,” Cazayoux said.  These cases often bring stiffer penalties including mandatory minimum sentences.  

People should be vigilant of price gouging, identity theft, and scammers.  If you feel that you are a victim of a scam, you should contact the National Disaster Fraud Center hotline at 866-720-5721 or email disaster@leo.gov.  


Cazayoux Ewing Law Firm Attorneys Representing Painters in Unpaid Overtime Claim

Attorneys Don Cazayoux and Lane Ewing of Cazayoux Ewing Law Firm are representing a group of painters from Baton Rouge who have filed a class action complaint against their former employer, Purity Group, LLC, stating that they were wrongfully denied overtime wages. According to the suit, the employees claim that they each worked 9 hour shifts 6 days out of the week. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, non-exempt employees must be paid time-and-a-half for any time worked in excess of 40 hours in a single work week.

In addition to allegedly being denied proper overtime wages, the plaintiffs in the suit claim that they were denied their final paycheck, depriving them of payment for 30 hours of work performed. As such, the plaintiffs are seeking back payment for all unpaid overtime wages, as well as for the value of their final, unpaid paychecks.


Don Cazayoux and Lane Ewing Volunteer at “Lawyers in Libraries” Event

Attorneys Don Cazayoux and Lane Ewing of the Cazayoux Ewing Law Firm recently volunteered at Louisiana State Bar Association’s “Lawyers in Libraries,” an event in which lawyers seek to help the public become aware of options available to them when they cannot afford an attorney. As a part of Louisiana’s “National Celebrate Pro Bono Week,” the program is designed to deliver information about pro bono attorneys through the city’s public libraries. Volunteers and the Legal Education & Assistance Program that help coordinate the event also work to provide online and print resources that are available to the public year-round. Click here to read more about this important event.


Attorney Don Cazayoux appears on Jim Engster show

On Monday, November 23rd, attorney Don Cazayoux of the Cazayoux Ewing Law Firm once again appeared on The Jim Engster Show. This week, he discussed the Louisiana Gubernatorial elections, and specifically, candidate John Bel Edwards. You can listen to this episode and Don Cazayoux’s appearance by clicking here.


Don Cazayoux and Lane Ewing participate in “Lawyers in Libraries” event

Attorneys Don Cazayoux and Lane Ewing of the Cazayoux Ewing Law Firm recently participated in a “Lawyers in Libraries” event hosted by the Louisiana State Bar Association’s Legal Education and Assistance Program (LEAP). The important “Lawyers in Libraries” events provide an opportunity for individuals throughout Louisiana to connected with attorneys in their area and also gain access to helpful information and legal resources.

LEAP is committed to helping low-income individuals secure the legal information and representation that they need, while also helping those who can afford legal representation find an attorney. The “Lawyers in Libraries” program is just one way in which LEAP works to meet this goal. You can learn more about this program by clicking here.


Don Cazayoux featured on The Jim Engster Show

Attorney Don Cazayoux of the Cazayoux Ewing Law Firm appeared on The Jim Engster Show this past Monday. On this episode, Cazayoux discussed a variety of topics, including the results of recent elections, the dynamics of the Gubernatorial runoff and upcoming Gt. Governor election, as well as the “spygate” issue that is currently surrounding Senator Vitter. Click here to listen to the episode in its entirety.

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