ATLANTA (AP) — A former U.S. State Department employee on Wednesday admitted accessing young women's online accounts from his computer at the U.S. Embassy in London and then extorting them by threatening to expose sexually explicit photos he found.
Michael C. Ford, 36, pleaded guilty at a hearing to nine counts of cyberstalking, seven counts of computer hacking to extort and one count of wire fraud.
Ford primarily targeted young women in the United States, especially sorority members and aspiring models, by posing as a member of the nonexistent account deletion team for a well-known email provider and sending emails to potential victims saying their accounts would be deleted unless they sent him their passwords, federal prosecutor Kamal Ghali told the judge.
Ford used those passwords to access email and social media accounts to obtain sexually explicit photos and to search for personal information and additional potential victims, Ghali said.
He then sent the women messages threatening to put the images online or send them to the women's families and friends if they didn't do what he wanted, a practice known as sextortion, Ghali said.
Ford repeatedly demanded that victims send him explicit photos and videos of "sexy girls" and asked for personal information and passwords of their friends and family, the indictment says. In multiple instances, he followed through on his threats to send the photos to people the victims knew, the indictment says.
Ford successfully hacked into more than 400 online accounts belonging to at least 200 victims and forwarded at least 1,300 messages to himself from those accounts, Ghali said.
Authorities detained him in May at Atlanta's airport as he prepared to board a London-bound flight. He was indicted in August and had pleaded not guilty in September.
His sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 16. The cyberstalking and hacking counts each carry a maximum of five years in prison, while the wire fraud count carries up to 20 years in prison. Each of the 17 counts is punishable by a fine of up to $250,000.