By Dustin Volz
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A former U.S. official pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges he orchestrated an international cyber hacking operation to stalk hundreds of young women and threaten them if they did not share sexually explicit material, the Justice Department said.
Michael Ford, 36, of Atlanta, Georgia, admitted to using aliases from January 2013 to May 2015 to engage in “sextortion” with his victims, many of them students at U.S. colleges, while employed by the U.S. State Department at the U.S. embassy in London, according to his indictment.
Ford’s scheme included posing as a technical support member from a well-known email company and sending phishing messages to thousands of potential victims, according to the indictment, the Justice Department said. After obtaining passwords Ford would hack into email and social media accounts in search of explicit photos and other personal information, such as home and work addresses, employment information and details about family members.
Ford then used the hacked data he collected to reach out to victims and engage in cyberstalking to demand additional sexually explicit material, such as videos of the women undressing in changing rooms at pools and stores, according to the Justice Department.
If victims refused to comply Ford would respond with escalating threats that included messages like “don’t worry, it's not like I know where you live.” He posted explicit photos online or sent them to friends and family, a practice sometimes referred to as "revenge porn," if they did not cooperate.
Ford pleaded guilty on nine counts of cyberstalking, seven counts of computer hacking to extort and one count of wire fraud. The majority of his criminal activity originated from his computer at the London embassy.
Ford's lawyer was not immediately available for comment.
(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Andrew Hay)