A former US State Department employee has been sentenced to 57 months in prison for “sextortion.”
Michael C. Ford, 36, of Atlanta, was convicted of perpetrating a widespread, international email phishing, computer hacking and cyberstalking scheme against hundreds of victims in the United States and abroad.
According to the plea document, Ford admitted that between January 2013 and May 2015, while employed by the U.S. Embassy in London, he used various aliases to target young females, some of whom were students at US colleges and universities, with a particular focus on members of sororities and aspiring models.
Posing as a member of the fictitious “account deletion team” for a well-known email service provider, Ford sent thousands of phishing emails to thousands of potential victims, warning them that their accounts would be deleted if they did not provide their passwords. Ford admitted he then used the passwords to hack into at least 450 email and social media accounts belonging to at least 200 victims, where he searched for sexually explicit photographs and for victims’ personal identifying information (PII), including their home and work addresses, school and employment information, and names and contact information of family members, among other things.
Using both the photos and PII, Ford admitted that he then emailed at least 75 victims, threatening to release those photos unless they took and sent him sexually explicit videos of “sexy girls” undressing in changing rooms at pools, gyms and clothing stores.
When the victims refused to comply, threatened to go to the police or begged Ford to leave them alone, Ford escalated his threats. For example, Ford admitted that he wrote in one email “don’t worry, it’s not like I know where you live,” followed by another email with her home address. He also threatened to post her photographs to an “escort/hooker website” along with her phone number and home address. On several occasions, Ford followed through with his threats, sending his victims’ sexually explicit photographs to family members and friends, according to the plea.
Additionally, at sentencing, the government presented evidence that Ford engaged in a related scheme targeting aspiring models beginning in 2009. Posing as a model scout, Ford convinced young women to send their personal information, to include dates of birth and measurements, as well as topless photos for consideration for fictitious modeling opportunities. During this ruse, Ford obtained topless and partially nude photos from hundreds of women, including several minors. He also attempted to entice a minor to take voyeuristic videos of her peers in her school locker room. Some of his early model-scout victims became the first victims of his charged cyberstalking scheme.
In December, Ford pleaded guilty to nine counts of cyberstalking, seven counts of computer hacking to extort and one count of wire fraud in connection with his ongoing criminal scheme. The names of the victims are being withheld from the public to protect their privacy.
“Michael Ford hacked hundreds of email accounts, particularly targeting young women so he could extort them into sending him sexually explicit images,” said Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell. “He preyed on vulnerable victims, leaving them with indelible emotional scars. His sentence is a necessary step in holding him to account for his crimes and helping his victims move forward with their lives.”
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