ATLANTA, Dec. 10 (UPI) — A former State Department employee who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Britain pleaded guilty to charges related to hacking into college-aged women’s email accounts and using explicit photographs he found to blackmail them.
Michael Ford, 36, of Atlanta, pleaded guilty to nine counts of cyberstalking, seven counts of computer hacking to extort and one count of wire fraud Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Georgia.
He was arrested in May at Hartford Jackson International Airport as he, his wife and son attempted to fly back to Britain after visiting family in Georgia.
In a complaint filed at the time, Ford was accused of hacking into the email accounts of two women — an 18-year-old in Kentucky and a 22-year-old in Illinois — to obtain sexually explicit photos of them. He then sent harassing emails to the women.
“I want you to video girls in the changing room [of her gym],” one email read. “If you don’t, I send your details and pictures to everyone. What do you say? Looks like you’ve made up your mind. Get ready for my email and post to go out tomorrow morning. Enjoy!”
Investigators traced the IP addresses used to send those emails to Ford’s work station at the U.S. Embassy in London, where State Department officials said he was the only one to use that particular computer. On Ford’s network account at the embassy, investigators also found a spreadsheet containing the addresses and passwords to more than 250 email accounts with information about the users’ Facebook and other photo-sharing accounts online.
The complaint said many of the email addresses came from college domains and a number belonged to multiple young women in the same sorority at a college in Indiana, one of whom was 17 years old.
“This leads me to believe that Ford may be targeting college-aged women throughout the United States,” the lead investigator wrote in the complaint.
The Department of Justice said Ford hacked into at least 450 online accounts belonging to at least 200 victims and sent messages to at least 75 victims.
“With nothing more than a computer and a few keystrokes, modern predators like Michael Ford can victimize hundreds of people around the world,” Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell said in a statement Thursday. “While this criminal prosecution may never return the victims’ sense of security, I hope that today’s guilty plea brings them some peace of mind.”
Ford was scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 16.