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U.S. State Dept. Employee Admits to Cyberstalking

WASHINGTON (CN) - A former U.S. State Department employee pleaded guilty Wednesday to perpetrating a widespread, email phishing, computer hacking and cyberstalking scheme against hundreds of victims in the United State and abroad.

Michael C. Ford, 36, of Atlanta, admitted that between January 2013 and May 2015 he used various aliases to force victims to provide him with personal information as well as sexually explicit videos of others. Ford targeted young females, with a particular focus on members of sororities and aspiring models.

On Aug. 18, 2015, a federal grand indicted Ford with nine counts of cyberstalking, seven counts of computer hacking to extort and one count of wire fraud. Ford pleaded guilty to all of the charges.

Ford posed as a member of the fictitious "account deletion team" for a well-known email service provider and sent phishing e-mails to thousands of potential victims, warning them that their e-mail accounts would be deleted if they did not provide their passwords. Ford then used the passwords to hack into hundreds of email and social media accounts, where he searched for sexually explicit photographs.

Upon finding such photos, Ford then found personal identifying information (PII) about the subjects. He then used the photos and the PII to demand more sexually explicit material. Ford e-mailed his victims with their stolen photos attached and threatened to release those photos if they did not cede to his demands.

When one victim begged him to leave her alone, authorities said Ford wrote in one email "don't worry, it's not like I know where you live," then sent another email to the same victim with her home address and threatened to post her photographs to an "escort/hooker website" along with her phone number and home address.

Ford later described the victim's home to her, stating "I like your red fire escape ladder, easy to climb."

Several times, Ford sent his victims' sexually explicit photographs to family members and friends.

Authorities say Ford successfully hacked into at least 450 online accounts belonging to at least 200 victims, and forwarded to himself at least 1,300 stolen email messages containing thousands of sexually explicit photographs.

During the relevant time period, Ford was employed by the U.S. Embassy in London. The majority of Ford's phishing, hacking and cyberstalking activities were conducted from his computer at the U.S. Embassy.

"With nothing more than a computer and a few keystrokes, modern predators like Michael Ford can victimize hundreds of people around the world," said Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell of the Justice Department's Criminal Division, said in a statement. "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's sentencing hearing is scheduled for Feb. 16, 2016.

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