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British man behind massive hack of celebrity Twitter accounts is jailed in the US for five years | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #hacker


A British man who conspired to hack the social media accounts of celebrities including Joe Biden and Elon Musk has been jailed for five years. 

24-year-old Joseph James O’Connor pleaded guilty to a string of cyber crime offences in May, almost three years after his hacking group which aimed to hijack over 130 Twitter accounts in a Bitcoin scam.

Those targeted including leading brands such as Apple and Uber, as well as Bill Gates, Barack Obama and other high profile figures, The Guardian reports.  

O’Connor, also known under an online alias as Plugwalk Joe, additionally pleaded guilty to stealing $794,000 in cryptocurrency, cyberstalking and online extortion. 

The Briton, who was extradited to the US from Spain on April 26, admitted to conspiring to commit wire fraud and money laundering. O’Connor was charged alongside fellow Briton Mason Sheppard, from Bognor Regis, West Sussex, and two Americans, Graham Ivan Clark and Nima Fazeli.

O’Connor, from Liverpool, Merseyside, is also believed to be behind an attack on actress Bella Thorne where he allegedly threatened to leak nude photographs he had obtained by hacking her SnapChat account unless she agreed to various demands. 

Joseph James O’Connor being led by Spanish police officers in July 22, 2021

Other charges he pleaded guilty to were conspiracy to commit computer intrusions, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering and stalking two victims. 

READ MORE: BRITON PLEADS GUILTY TO ROLE IN MASS HACKING PLOT OF CELEBRITIES 

O’Connor faced up to 20 years for the most serious of the charges.

On top of his five-year term, he has also been handed three years of supervised release and ordered to pay $794,000.

‘O’Connor’s criminal activities were flagrant and malicious and his conduct impacted multiple people’s lives. He harassed, threatened and extorted his victims, causing substantial emotional harm,’ Kenneth A Polite Jr, an assistant attorney general in the US justice department’s criminal division, said last month.

‘Like many criminal actors, O’Connor tried to stay anonymous by using a computer to hide behind stealth accounts and aliases from outside the United States.’

Florida teen Graham Ivan Clark, said to be the mastermind of the plot, was sentenced in July 2021 to three years in juvenile prison – the longest term allowed under state law.

One hacked tweet from Biden read: ‘I am giving back to the community. All bitcoin sent to the address below will be sent back doubled! If you send $1,000, I will send back $2,000. Only doing this for 30 minutes.’

Another tweet from Bezos read: ‘I have decided to give back to my community. All Bitcoin sent to my address below will be sent back doubled. I am only doing a maximum of $50,000,000.’

Just days after the Twitter hack, O’Connor had laughed off any suggestion he was the one behind it. 

‘I don’t care – they can come arrest me,’ O’Connor told the New York Times in July 2020 about his links to the breach. ‘I would laugh at them. I haven’t done anything.’

But two years later, O’Connor admitted to being behind the major hack. 

Briton Joseph James O’Connor, 24, (pictured) admitted to hijacking the celebrity Twitter accounts and stealing $794,000 in cryptocurrency after being extradited to the United States from Spain

The July 2020 Twitter attack hijacked a variety of verified accounts, including those of then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (pictured)

One hacked tweet from Biden read: ‘I am giving back to the community. All bitcoin sent to the address below will be sent back doubled! If you send $1,000, I will send back $2,000. Only doing this for 30 minutes

The accounts of former President Barack Obama, reality TV star Kim Kardashian, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Benjamin Netanyahu, Jeff Bezos (pictured), Michael Bloomberg and Kanye West were also hit

Jeff Bezos was targeted in the Twitter hack

Scores of scam messages were pumped out from 130 Twitter accounts, including those of Kim Kardashian, Joe Biden, Elon Musk (pictured) and Jeff Bezos so that their followers would send them Bitcoin

Scores of scam messages were pumped out from 130 Twitter accounts, including those of Kim Kardashian, Joe Biden, Elon Musk (pictured) and Jeff Bezos so that their followers would send them Bitcoin

The attack reached over 130 Twitter accounts, including those of Kanye West, Bill Gates, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama

In 2019 O’Connor and the three other hackers also used a technique known as sim card swaps to break their way into social media accounts of two media stars, not named in court filings but named in press reports as TikTok star Addison Rae and actress Bella Thorne. 

The group threatened to release their private images and other information.

As a result, Thorne preemptively posted on Twitter that she had been ‘threatened with my own nudes,’ and posted screenshots of the text messages. Thorne said she was releasing the photographs so that the hacker would not be able to ‘take yet another thing from me.’

O’Connor allegedly used Rae’s TikTok account to post self-promotional messages, including a video in which his voice is recognisable, the US justice department said. He then threatened to release sensitive personal information related to Rae to individuals who joined a specified Discord server. 

O’Connor is also said to have cyberstalked a 16-year-old girl and sent her nude pictures. 

He also cyberstalked a minor and threatened them in June and July 2020. O’Connor called the local police several times and falsely claimed the victim was making threats to shoot people in order to put the minor in danger, the US justice department said.

O’Connor later called multiple family members of the victim and threatened to kill them, the department added.  

In a separate case, the hackers used the same technique to steal $794,000 of virtual currency from a New York cryptocurrency company. Prosecutors said O’Connor will forfeit the money and pay restitution to the victims.

In 2019 O’Connor and the three other hackers also used a technique known as sim card swaps to break their way into social media accounts of two media stars, not named in court filings but named in press reports as TikTok star Addison Rae and actress Bella Thorne (pictured)

Barack Obama was targeted in the Twitter hack in 2020
Bill Gates was targeted in the Twitter hack in 2020
Kanye West was targeted in the Twitter hack in July 2020. O’Connor has now admitted to being behind the attack

‘O’Connor’s criminal activities were flagrant and malicious, and his conduct impacted multiple people’s lives. He harassed, threatened, and extorted his victims, causing substantial emotional harm,’ Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite said in a statement. 

‘Like many criminal actors, O’Connor tried to stay anonymous by using a computer to hide behind stealth accounts and aliases from outside the United States.

‘But this (guilty) plea shows that our investigators and prosecutors will identify, locate, and bring to justice such criminals to ensure they face the consequences for their crimes.’

‘O’Connor has left an impressive trail of destruction in the wake of his wave of criminality,’ said U.S. Attorney Ismail J. Ramsey for the Northern District of California. 

‘This case serves as a warning that the reach of the law is long, and criminals anywhere who use computers to commit crimes may end up facing the consequences of their actions in places they did not anticipate.’ 

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