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The Wayback Machine: A Tool for Nostalgia and Fraud Examination?

The internet is a vast repository of information, with billions of web pages and websites documenting the digital footprints of people and organizations. However, as regular internet users know, web pages are not always permanent. Some are taken down, while many others are deleted or modified over time. This is where the Wayback Machine comes into play. As part of the Internet Archive, a non-profit digital library founded in 1996, the Wayback Machine contains a historic log of an estimated 735 billion web pages, making it an incredibly powerful database supporting a range of businesses and industries.  

In 2017, a second circuit court of appeals in New York upheld challenges from Fabio Gasperini, an Italian computer hacker who was convicted of misdemeanor computer intrusion. Screenshots from the Wayback Machine were entered as evidence in the case against him, confirming that websites he ran tied him to the virus and botnet scam for which he was convicted. Gasperini appealed, contesting that the screenshots could not be legitimate or verifiable, which was debunked following confirmation from an Internet Archive employee on their authenticity. This ruling paved the way for this type of evidence to be used in securing future convictions, which remains a valuable tool for fraud investigations.  

One of the main ways that the Wayback Machine can be used in fraud investigations is by identifying changes made to a website or web page. For example, if a company is suspected of fraudulently altering information on their website, investigators can use the Wayback Machine to view the historical record of that website and identify any changes that were made. This can include changes to pricing information, product descriptions or other important information that may be relevant to the investigation.  

The Wayback Machine can also be useful in fraud investigations by providing evidence of fraudulent activities. If a company is suspected of engaging in false advertising or misrepresenting their products or services, investigators can retrieve historical records of the company’s website or web pages, which may reveal evidence of misleading claims or false information.  

In addition to identifying changes and providing evidence of fraudulent activities, the Wayback Machine can be used to identify potential witnesses or accomplices. With a range of website designers, content creators or other individuals who may be involved in maintaining web pages over many years, investigators can use the Wayback Machine to identify individuals who were involved in the creation or maintenance of the website or web pages in question. 

Not only can the Wayback Machine be used to investigate fraud, it can also be used to prevent it. For example, banks and financial institutions can use the Wayback Machine to monitor the websites of potential clients or partners. By checking the historical content of these websites, banks can identify red flags early in the vetting process to protect their institutions from fraudulent activities.  

However, the Wayback Machine is not foolproof. Some websites may use robots.txt files, for example, to block the Wayback Machine from archiving their content or use other methods to hide or modify their historical content. The Wayback Machine only archives publicly accessible websites, so it may not be useful in investigating fraud that occurs on private or encrypted platforms. 

In conclusion, the Wayback Machine can be a powerful tool in fraud investigations. It allows investigators to access historical evidence of website content and structure, which can help them identify and prosecute fraudsters. While the Wayback Machine is not an end-all for fraud prevention, it is an important tool that can be used by law enforcement agencies, financial institutions and other organizations looking for another opportunity to protect themselves and their clients from fraud risks.

SOURCE: ACFE Insights – A Publication of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners

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