Manhattan U.S. Attorney Announces Charges Against Bahamas Man For Unlawfully Accessing Celebrities’ Email Accounts To Steal And Sell Upcoming Movie And Television Show Scripts, Personal Identification Information, And Private Videos
Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Glenn Sorge, acting Special Agent in Charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”) New York, announced today the filing of a criminal complaint against ALONZO KNOWLES in connection with KNOWLES’s scheme to sell stolen scripts of upcoming movies and television shows, and the personal identification information and private, sexually explicit videos of celebrities and other professionals in the entertainment, professional sports, and media industries (the “Victims”), all of which KNOWLES obtained by gaining unlawful access to the Victims’ personal e-mail accounts. KNOWLES was arrested in New York, New York, on December 21, 2015, and charged with one count of criminal copyright infringement and one count of identity theft. He will be presented later today in Manhattan federal court in the before United States Magistrate Judge Henry B. Pitman.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara stated: “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. I want to thank HSI for their quick work to stop Knowles’s alleged intrusions and his efforts to profit from the information he stole.”
Acting Special Agent in Charge Glenn Sorge stated: “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 HSIs commitment to target those who use the cyber world for illegal financial gain.”
According to the Complaint filed today in Manhattan federal court:
In early December 2015, representatives of an American premium cable and satellite television network (“TV Network-1”) were informed by the executive producer (the “Executive Producer”) of a popular drama television series airing on TV Network-1 (“TV Series-1”) that an individual may have obtained unauthorized access to scripts of the upcoming season of TV Series-1. In particular, a popular radio host (“Witness-1”) had contacted the Executive Producer because Witness-1 had received an unsolicited offer, by email, from an individual who offered to sell Witness-1 scripts of upcoming episodes of TV Series-1. That individual was later identified as KNOWLES. Thereafter, at the direction of law enforcement, Witness-1 introduced KNOWLES to an undercover law enforcement agent (the “UC”) who expressed interest in purchasing the scripts.
In videoconference calls in December 2015, KNOWLES claimed to the UC that he had “exclusive content” that was “really profitable” and worth “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” KNOWLES stated that he obtained the material directly from the Victims without their knowledge, and claimed to be able to acquire additional material from other celebrities and entertainment, sports, and media industry professionals. KNOWLES showed the UC a list of the e-mail addresses and phone numbers of at least 130 such individuals that he had in his possession.
KNOWLES also offered to sell the UC sexually explicit images and videos that KNOWLES had stolen from the personal e-mail accounts of such individuals, certain of whom KNOWLES specifically identified to the UC. As an example, KNOWLES provided the UC with images and a video clip that he had stolen from the personal email account of another radio host (“Victim-5”) that had been sent to Victim-5 by another individual. In addition, after the UC inquired whether KNOWLES could obtain the personal identification information of celebrities, KNOWLES provided the UC with a copy of the passport, Social Security Number, and other personal identification information of a particular film actor. In addition, KNOWLES offered to sell the UC “a very popular A list celebrity ssn along with 30 unreleased tracks towards their upcoming album.”
On December 21, 2015, during a meeting with the UC in New York, New York, KNOWLES claimed to use two different methods to gain unlawful access to Victims’ email accounts. One method, according to KNOWLES, involved sending a “virus” to the Victim’s computer which enabled KNOWLES to access it. The other method involved KNOWLES emailing a false notification to the Victim stating that the Victim’s email account had been hacked, and asking for the Victim’s passcodes. Either way, once KNOWLES had successfully accessed the Victim’s e-mail account, KNOWLES, unbeknownst to the Victim, changed the settings in the Victim’s e-mail account in order to maintain ongoing access to it.
During the December 21, 2015, meeting, KNOWLES attempted to sell to the UC, in exchange for $80,000, approximately 15 movie and television scripts that he had unlawfully obtained from the Victims, and KNOWLES also provided the UC with the Social Security Numbers of three professional athletes and a movie actress, whereupon KNOWLES was arrested.
KNOWLES, 23, of Freeport, Bahamas, is charged with one count of felony criminal copyright infringement, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, and one count of identity theft, which carries a maximum sentence of five years. The maximum potential sentences in this case are prescribed by Congress and are provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant will be determined by the judge.
Mr. Bharara praised the outstanding investigative work of the HSI. Mr. Bharara also noted that the investigation remains ongoing.
The prosecution of this case is being handled by the Office’s Complex Frauds and Cybercrime Unit. Assistant United States Attorney Kristy J. Greenberg is in charge of the prosecution.
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