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SIM Hijackers Steal Over $5 Million in Bitcoin in First Reported Crime of its Kind

Last Updated March 4, 2021 4:05 PM
Mark Emem
Last Updated March 4, 2021 4:05 PM

Forget cryptojacking, SIM hijacking now seems set to become even more lucrative for criminals looking to cash in with bitcoin from the burgeoning space.

A 20-year old college student from Boston, Massachusetts was arrested in California earlier this month on charges of being part of a gang that hacked cellphone numbers before stealing over US$5 million in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

According to Motherboard , the number of cell phone numbers that the Bostonian named Joel Ortiz and his accomplices hacked using a technique referred to as SIM swapping or hijacking was about 40. With SIM hijacking, mobile operators are tricked into transferring the phone number of a target to a SIM card that’s under the control of the criminal. Upon obtaining the number the criminals can then reset passwords before accessing online accounts of their victim.

Big Payday During Consensus 2018

Ortiz and his accomplices specifically targeted players in the blockchain and cryptocurrency fields. During Consensus 2018 which took place in May, for instance, Ortiz is alleged to have stolen over US$1.5 million from a blockchain entrepreneur. Court documents have revealed that once Ortiz took control of the victim’s cellphone number, he reset the password of his email address before accessing his cryptocurrency accounts.

The hunt for the criminal gang started when one unnamed victim reported to the police that his cellphone number had been stolen. The victim was targeted by Ortiz severally earlier this year with the college student managing to hijack his cellphone number twice.

Following the Trail

With the help of telecommunications giant AT&T, the investigators were able to obtain the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers of the phones the SIM hijacker had been using. Subsequently, the detectives were then able to access email accounts linked to the smartphones from where they got evidence of potential criminal activity.

The cryptocurrency exchanges that Ortiz allegedly used were Binance, Bittrex and Coinbase and from these investigators obtained information showing that the Bostonian had moved cryptocurrencies worth over US$1 million.

Tech Support Fraud

Fraud in the cryptocurrency space has been increasing though so far there haven’t been reported cases involving SIM swapping. Earlier in the year, for instance, the FBI released a public service announcement warning of the increasing cases of fraud in the cryptocurrency field in what it labeled ‘tech support fraud’. As CCN.com reported this mainly involved criminals posing as customer or tech support personnel with a view of defrauding their targets.

“Criminals pose as virtual currency support. Victims contact fraudulent virtual currency support numbers usually located via open source searches. The fraudulent support asks for access to the victim’s virtual currency wallet and transfers the victim’s virtual currency to another wallet for temporary holding during maintenance. The virtual currency is never returned to the victim, and the criminal ceases all communication,” the FBI  warned in March this year.

Featured image from Shutterstock.