A college student who stole more than $5 million in cryptocurrency by hijacking the phone numbers of around 40 victims pleaded guilty and accepted a plea deal of 10 years in prison, Motherboard has learned.
Joel Ortiz accepted the plea deal last week, Erin West, the Deputy District Attorney in Santa Clara County, California, told Motherboard during a meeting on Thursday. The authorities believe Ortiz is the first person to be convicted of a crime for SIM swapping, an increasingly popular and damaging hack. The prosecutors and agents who have been investigating these hacks celebrated the conviction, and said they hope that this will serve as an example for the other alleged criminals who have already been arrested, as well as the ones who have yet to be caught.
"We think justice has been served. And hopefully this is a strong message to that community," Samy Tarazi, one of the agents who investigated the Ortiz case, told me.
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Ortiz is one of a handful of SIM swappers who have been arrested in the last year for hijacking phone numbers and using them to then hack into emails, social media accounts, and online Bitcoin wallets. Other people who have been arrested are Xzavyer Narvaez, who’s accused of stealing around $1 million in Bitcoin; Nicholas Truglia, who’s also accused of stealing millions in Bitcoin; and Joseph Harris, one of the most infamous SIM swappers who allegedly stole more than $14 million in cryptocurrency.
The authorities think the slow but constant drip of arrests, and Ortiz’s sentencing, will send a clear message to those who are still out there.
“Each arrest that we made sent shockwaves through that community,” West said. “That they weren’t safe in their basement, they weren't safe in their room in their mom’s house, that they were being tracked down and arrested—one by one.”
West added that “in looking at Joel’s sentence—10 years—it shows that our community will not tolerate this type of crime. And we will continue to find everyone who’s responsible.”
West and her colleagues declined to say how many ongoing investigations they have, but she said that they have made new arrests and served new search warrants.
Almost all these investigations have stemmed from the Regional Enforcement Allied Computer Team or REACT, a task force of multiple local California police departments. Tarazi, an agent at REACT, said that during 2018, they received hundreds of reports of SIM swapping attacks from victims. Those reports, according to him, have now slowed down.
Ortiz will be officially sentenced on March 14.
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