An investigation that uncovered a far-reaching sextortion scheme by a U.S State Department employee at the U.S Embassy in London all started with a single complaint by a young victim located in Kentucky that went to the police.
“The victim basically was saying that she was being cyberstalked by some guy who got into her e-mail and was threatening to expose compromising photos of her to her friends and family,” said FBI Special Agent Andrew Young, who interviewed some of the hundreds of victims targeted by Michael C. Ford, a former State Department civilian employee who was sentenced last month to nearly five years in prison for hacking into the e-mail accounts of young women to extort them.
According to the facts of the case, between January 2013 and May 2015, Ford posed as a member of a large web company’s so called äccount deletion team”and sent out emails to thousand of women warning them that their e-mail account would be deleted if they didn’t provide their passwords. He then used the passwords he received to access the victims email account along with their social media to search for nude and topless photos and personal information like contacts and addresses.
He accessed at least 450 e-mail accounts and admitted to e-mailing at least 75 women, threatening to circulate their explicit pictures unless they sent him more.
After the initial complaint was lodged in Kentucky, the local police reached out to the FBI in Louisville, where agents traced the source of the e-mails to a State Department server in London. The Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) began an internal probe that led straight to Ford and uncovered the massive hacking, cyberstalking and sextortion scheme. Young said the investigation showed Ford spent the bulk of his time at work using a government computer to “extort women, hack into their e-mail accounts, and threaten them.”
The FBI’s primary role in the investigation was to interview victims across the U.S. to build a case. “They were angry,” said Young, who worked the case out of the FBI’s Atlanta Field Office, which had jurisdiction because Ford had Georgia residency. “Somebody steals your most private pictures out of your computer, then comes back and threatens you with it. They felt compromised.”
At Ford’s sentencing on March 21, prosecutors presented evidence of another scheme he started sever years earlier, in 2009. Posing as talent, Ford combed through websites where aspiring models posted their pictures and contact information. He duped young women into sending personal information, including their measurements and dates of birth. He would send them an e-mail with a link, and when they clicked on the link he got access to their computer and e-mail accounts,” Young said.
Ford, a 36 year-old, of Atlanta, was indicted August 18,2015 following his arrest by DSS during a visit to the city. He pled guilty to his charges in December.
His plea was due in large part to the huge amounts of evidence against him, including the statements of victims like the one who came forward in Kentucky.
“There was no getting around it,” Young said. “Witness after witness and a lot of forensic evidence—it made putting him in jail a whole lot easier.”