Joel Ortiz, a UMass Boston student from Allston who was arrested in California last year for stealing $5 million in cryptocurrencies, has pleaded guilty and will accept a 10-year prison sentence.
Ortiz is a 2016 valedictorian of Another Course to College,
a small Boston pilot school that specializes in college prep classes. He was arrested at a Los Angeles airport in July as he was about to fly to Europe, with $250,000 in cryptocurrency in his possession. Prior to his attempted departure, Ortiz had gone on a $150,000 spending spree that included lavish parties in rented mansions.
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According to investigators in Santa Clara County, Ortiz tricked wireless phone companies into giving him control of his victims’ cell phone accounts, a crime known as “SIM swapping.” He used his access to change the passwords to the victims’ social media and financial accounts. These included accounts holding computer-generated cybercurrencies such as bitcoin and Ether. Ortiz then withdrew funds from the cryptocurrency accounts.
Investigators said that Ortiz stole $10,000 in bitcoin from a veteran tech executive in California, then phoned the victim’s wife and texted his daughter to demand more money. In another instance, he tricked the friend of one of his victims into “lending” Ortiz an additional $100,000 worth of digital currency.
Erin West, deputy district attorney of Santa Clara County, said she was “surprised and delighted” that the judge hearing Ortiz’s case agreed that a 10-year sentence was reasonable. “We don’t always know how judges are going to handle cases where there’s no physical injury...This sets a bar for this kind of case.”
West said that her office is prosecuting four other alleged SIM swappers who have ripped off victims in her jurisdiction. None of these are connected with the Ortiz case. “It’s a nationwide epidemic,” she said. Investigators from West’s office have made arrests as far away as New York City. West said that one reason her office is bringing so many SIM swapping cases is because the federal government has so far failed to prosecute anybody for the crime.
West is also still searching for Ortiz’ suspected accomplices, who may have helped him steal the identities of his victims. She declined to say whether Ortiz is cooperating in the investigation.
Meanwhile, David Silver, a Florida attorney representing SIM swapping victims, called Ortiz’ guilty plea “the first step in the right direction.” But Silver said the wireless phone companies bear most of the blame for the cybercurrency thefts. “The phone companies are providing the keys to the hacking criminals to steal the proverbial car,” he said.
Silver is suing wireless carriers AT&T and T-Mobile for using inadequate network security systems and for failing to properly train and supervise customer service workers.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.