First Jail Sentence For SIM Hijacking


The authorities believe that they have given a man the first jail time for doing SIM hijacking.

20-year-old California college student Joel Ortiz has been sentenced to 10 years in prison, after pleading guilty to stealing more than $5 million in cryptocurrency from around 40 people.

He did this by gathering as much information from victims, to them make phony SIM swap requests. He then used his newly gained control to obtain logins to victims' accounts that require two-factor authentication through phone number.

Ortiz, who was valedictorian at his Boston high school and studies IT at UMass Boston, was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), just before he got on an international flight.

According to Erin West, the Deputy District Attorney of Santa Clara County, California. Ortiz is getting his sentence on March 14th.

Joel Ortiz
Joel Ortiz (second from right), photographed alongside Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (second from left) and then superintendent Tommy Chang (right) in an event in 2016

The Allston man faces 28 charges: 13 counts of identity theft, 13 counts of hacking, and two counts of grand theft, according to the tech and science online magazine Motherboard.

"We think justice has been served. And hopefully, this is a strong message to that community," said Samy Tarazi, one of the agents who investigated Ortiz.

SIM-swapping method has become a common method for hackers and thieves to steal sensitive information that include and not limited to: email logins, social media accounts and cryptocurrency wallets' credentials.

The practice involves someone transferring a phone number to a different SIM card, without the owner’s approval. The thieves do this by calling a phone carrier saying that they lost their SIM card, and ask to get the number ported to another phone.

If granted, the thieves can then take over their target’s accounts by intercepting their two-factor authentication method.

With Ortiz getting in jail, SIM hijackers are starting to face the consequences of their actions.

Ortiz here, won't likely be alone for long. Several others have been arrested in recent months, including participants in larger crime rings. These people include Xzavyer Narvaez, accused of stealing around $1 million in Bitcoin; Nicholas Truglia, accused of stealing millions in Bitcoin; and Joseph Harris, who allegedly stole more than $14 million in cryptocurrency.

The government attorneys hope a sentence like this will deter others from perpetrating SIM hijacking schemes, as early actions should have an effect to them.

"Each arrest that we made sent shockwaves through that community," West said. "That they weren’t safe in their basement, they weren't safe in their room in their mom’s house, that they were being tracked down and arrested—one by one."

According to Tarazi, the reports of SIM swapping had slowed down, suggesting that would-be attackers were increasingly aware of crackdowns.