Former US Embassy employee imprisoned for sextortion
Former US State Department employee Michael C. Ford has been sentenced to four years, and nine months in prison for perpetrating a widespread, international e-mail phishing, computer hacking, cyberstalking and sextortion scheme against hundreds of victims in the US and abroad.
“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 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.”
Two years of sextortion in London
Ford admitted that between January 2013 and May 2015, while employed by the US Embassy in London, he used various aliases to commit a widespread, international computer hacking, cyberstalking and “sextortion” campaign designed to force victims to provide Ford with personal information as well as sexually explicit videos of others. Ford targeted 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 e-mail service provider (Gmail), Ford sent thousands of phishing e-mails to thousands of potential victims, warning them that their e-mail accounts would be deleted if they did not provide their passwords. He admitted he then used the passwords to hack into at least 450 e-mail 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 e-mailed 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 e-mail “don’t worry, it’s not like I know where you live,” followed by another e-mail with her home address and 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, he 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, he 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.
He was sentenced by US District Judge Eleanor L. Ross of the Northern District of Georgia, to four years and nine months in federal prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release.
The case was investigated by the Diplomatic Security Service and the FBI.
“The Diplomatic Security Service is proud of the hard work of everyone involved in the investigation including our partners at the FBI and the Department of Justice. When a public servant in a position of trust commits crimes like cyberstalking and computer hacking on such a large scale, we will vigorously investigate those crimes and ensure they are brought to justice. We hope that this sentence will provide some closure for the victims,” said Director Miller.
It hasn’t been mentioned why the State Department’s IT services failed to detect Ford’s illegal activities, given that he performed them from the computer issued to him by the State Department and located at the US Embassy in London.
“This case unfortunately shows that cyber-stalkers have the ability to torment victims from any corner of the globe,” said US Attorney John A. Horn. “Hopefully, Ford’s victims can be reassured that he will serve a significant sentence for his conduct.”