In brief: A college student will be sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing more than $5 million in cryptocurrency last year. He took the money by hijacking the phones of about 40 different people.
Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Erin West told Motherboard on Thursday that Joel Ortiz accepted a plea bargain for his 2018 crime. The man pleaded guilty to charges of SIM swapping. It is believed that he is the first to have been convicted of the offense.
SIM swapping involves taking control of someone’s phone number without stealing their device. It is usually carried out by tricking cell providers into transferring the victim’s phone number to a SIM card that the hijacker owns or controls.
The scam can be very damaging because once the attacker has the phone number, he can access various accounts including social media, bank, and cryptocurrency wallets with ease. Not even two-factor authentication is an effective deterrent since the hacker has control of the phone number.
As we reported last year, Ortiz was arrested in July 2018 at the Los Angeles International Airport as he was about to flee the country heading to Europe. Not only had Ortiz stolen millions in cryptocurrency, but he also trafficked in hijacked social media accounts, which can be sold on the dark web for Bitcoin.
A handful of other SIM swappers have been apprehended in recent months in other unrelated cases including Joseph Harris, who allegedly stole over $14 million in cryptocurrency in a single heist. Harris was arrested last October.
Deputy DA West and the agents involved in the arrest are happy for the conviction and hope that it serves as a message to other hijackers.
“We think justice has been served. And hopefully this is a strong message to [the SIM-swapping] community,” said Samy Tarazi, a Secret Service agent involved in the Ortiz case.
Ortiz will face a judge on March 14 for official sentencing. He is expected to be handled a 10-year sentence as per his plea deal.
Photo via Associated Press