NEW YORK, United States, Monday December 28, 2015 – Federal prosecutors have alleged that a man from The Bahamas hacked the email accounts of 130 celebrities, taking unreleased movie scripts, social security numbers and sexually explicit photos and videos.
The alleged hacking activities of 23-year-old Alonzo Knowles were discovered when he tried to sell some of the material he found for profit, according to the New York Times.
To gain access to the accounts, Knowles allegedly looked at published photos of high-profile celebrities and then hacked into their friends’ email accounts first.
He was then able to access some of the celebrities’ personal information, and to those he found phone numbers for, he sent text messages suggesting their accounts had been hacked, it was alleged.
Knowles allegedly secured instant access to the accounts of the celebrities who responded with their passwords.
If he was able to gain access to the celebrity’s computer, he would send a virus that gave him access to information stored on the hard drive and he would also adjust the individual’s email settings in order to maintain ongoing access, prosecutors said.
The alleged cyber criminal appeared at a federal court in Manhattan on Tuesday charged with criminal copyright infringement and identity theft. A judge ruled to detain him without bail.
— WWMT-TV (@wwmtnews) December 23, 2015
While none of the individual victims of the alleged crimes have been named, a report lists some of the items stolen.
Specifically, Knowles is accused of acquiring 30 unreleased tracks set to be included on the album of a popular celebrity, the first six episodes of a television drama currently in production, and social security numbers for a number of professional athletes and actors.
The federal probe began earlier this month after Knowles allegedly emailed a “popular radio host” to offer to sell the scripts, according to the complaint.
“This is just a sample of things I can get,” Knowles allegedly wrote on December 12, according to a Newsweek report. “I have more stuff along these lines and can get more if you’re interested in these kind of stuff.”
The radio host contacted the executive producer of one of the stolen television scripts, prompting the network responsible for the programme to notify the Department of Homeland Security. A meeting was subsequently set up with Knowles and an undercover agent.
Knowles was busted after allegedly trying to sell the agent the social security numbers of several athletes and one actress as well as 15 scripts for US$80,000.
George Sorge, acting special agent in charge, said: “This arrest brings down an alleged email hacking scheme that targeted many individuals including some in the entertainment industry.
“As cyber-crime becomes more pervasive, this operation embodies HSI’s [Homeland Security Investigations’] commitment to target those who use the cyber world for illegal financial gain,” he added.
Manhattan US attorney Preet Bharara commented: “This case has all of the elements of the kind of blockbuster script the defendant, Alonzo Knowles, is alleged to have stolen: hacks into celebrities’ private emails, identity theft, and attempts to sell victims’ information to the highest bidder.
“Unfortunately, these circumstances are all too real.”
The charges against Knowles are reminiscent of the infamous Sony hack, in which a group calling themselves the Guardians of the Peace dumped nearly 40 gigabytes of hacked email transcripts and sensitive company data last year in an attempt to stop the release of the movie The Interview.