MTV featured the story of the $5 million phone hack on True Life: Crime this week. The hack, which was pulled off by 20-year-old Joel Ortiz, was one of the first SIM-swapping conviction in the U.S.
True Life: Crime is a spin-off of the popular MTV show True Life. It investigates true crime mysteries and headlines. The series premiered in Jan 2020.
The episode synopsis for “The 5-Million-Dollar Hack” describes the crime.
“When 5 million dollars goes missing from dozens of unsuspecting victims, police uncover a massive case of identity theft committed by a 20-year-old hacker in order to bankroll his lifestyle of partying, lavish trips and designer clothing. This case reveals the extreme dangers facing everyone with a phone.”
Here’s what you need to know about Ortiz:
1. Ortiz Impersonated His Victims to Get Access to Their Phones
The way Ortiz would steal from his victims was simple. He would call companies or even, in some cases, physically go to the stores, and he would say he was a different person in order to get access to that person’s SIM card.
He would talk the carrier into granting him access to his victims’ cell phone numbers. In at least one case, Ortiz got the carrier to physically do a SIM swap for him.
Even if victims found out very quickly that they were being hacked, sometimes it was already too late to do anything about it. In one case, a victim told investigators that he knew immediately that he was being hacked when he lost cell phone service. Despite his immediate efforts to get his phone back at an AT&T store, investigators say Ortiz stole $1.7 million in cryptocurrency from him.
2. He Pleaded No Contest to the Crimes
On Jan 24, 2019, Ortiz pleaded no contest after being charged with 41 counts including grand theft, identity theft and computer crimes linking him to 13 victims at the time.
A no contest plea, which has the same effects as a guilty plea, was for eight counts involving victims who suffered a monetary loss. He accepted restitution responsibilities for the victims in the remaining charges.
Ortiz was being held on $1 million bail since his arrest up until his trial. His was one of the first convictions involving the SIM swapping technique.
3. Ortiz Was Valedictorian at his High School
Ortiz was a University of Massachusetts college student at the time of his arrest. Prior to attending UMass, he attended Boston Public schools where he graduated as the valedictorian.
The Boston Globe reported that Ortiz developed a passion for technology which was later nurtured at the Boston Pilot School Another Course to College. There, Ortiz was a robotics team leader. He was planning on majoring in information technology at UMass.
Though Ortiz lived and attended college in the Boston area, he was arrested in California on his way to a music festival out of the country.
4. He Was Sentenced to 10 Years in Prison
Motherboard reported that the then 20-year-old hacker was sentenced to 10 years in prison as part of his plea deal. Also as part of that plea deal, Ortiz admitted to stealing information from around 40 people. In all, he stole over $5 million in cryptocurrency.
According to The Verge, SIM Swapping has become a popular method for thieves to steal data, especially cryptocurrency or social media accounts. Basically, the thieves will call a carrier and explain that they’ve lost their phone and ask for their number to be transferred to a different phone. If that works, they can use the victims’ accounts by intercepting their two-factor authentification text messages.
Erin West, the Deputy District Attorney in Santa Clara County, CA, spoke with Motherboard about Ortiz’s crimes and sentencing.
“In looking at Joel’s sentence—10 years—it shows that our community will not tolerate this type of crime. And we will continue to find everyone who’s responsible,” she said.
5. Ortiz Was Arrested in Los Angeles
Ortiz was reportedly a fan of flaunting his money. He often wore designer clothing and rented mansions in Los Angeles. He was arrested while trying to fly out of the Los Angeles airport to go to an EDM festival in Belgium. New York Post reported he was dressed head-to-toe in Gucci at the time.
Authorities first got onto Ortiz’s trail in Feb 2018. At that time, a Santa Clara County resident discovered he had lost $10,000 worth of bitcoin. The hacker then called the resident’s wife and texted his daughter to “TELL YOUR DAD TO GIVE US BITCOIN.” They traced the hacker’s SIM and smartphones, finding emails that identified Ortiz and eventually identifying him in a photo holding his own ID card.
While some thieves follow Ortiz’s model and call companies to get phones in their hands, others comb through their victim’s social media profiles to find answers to their security questions or even use the age-old phishing emails technique.
Tune in to True Life Crime on Feb 19, 2020 on MTV to hear their investigation into the story.