Three men have been charged in connection with a Twitter breach earlier this month that commandeered the accounts of prominent politicians, celebrities and technology moguls and scammed people around the globe out of more than $100,000 in Bitcoin. Two other men were also charged in the case.
Graham Ivan Clark, 17, identified as the mastermind behind the attack, was arrested on Friday in Tampa and faces 30 felony charges, according to a news release.
Two men accused of benefiting from the hack — Mason Sheppard, 19, of Bognor Regis, UK, and Nima Fazeli, 22, of Orlando — were charged separately in California federal court.
In one of the most high-profile security breaches in recent years, bogus tweets were sent out on July 15 from the accounts of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg and a number of tech billionaires including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Celebrities Kanye West and his wife, Kim Kardashian West, were also hacked.
The tweets offered to send $2,000 for every $1,000 sent to an anonymous Bitcoin address. The hack alarmed security experts because of the grave potential of such an intrusion for creating geopolitical mayhem with disinformation.
Court papers in the California cases say Mr Fazeli and Mr Sheppard brokered the sale of Twitter accounts stolen by a hacker who identified himself as “Kirk” and said he could “reset, swap and control any Twitter account at will” in exchange for cybercurrency payments, claiming to be a Twitter employee.
The documents do not specify Kirk’s real identity but say he is a teen being prosecuted in the Tampa area.
Twitter has said the hacker gained access to a company dashboard that manages accounts by using social engineering and spear-phishing smartphones to obtain credentials from “a small number” of Twitter employees “to gain access to our internal systems.” Spear-phishing uses email or other messaging to deceive people into sharing access credentials.
“There is a false belief within the criminal hacker community that attacks like the Twitter hack can be perpetrated anonymously and without consequence,” US Attorney David L Anderson for the Northern District of California said in a new release.
The evidence suggests, however, that those responsible did a poor job of covering their tracks. The court documents released on Friday show how federal agents tracked down the hackers through Bitcoin transactions and by obtaining records of their online chats.
Although the case was investigated by the FBI and the US Department of Justice, Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said his office is prosecuting Mr Clark in state court because Florida law allows minors to be charged as adults in financial fraud cases when appropriate. He called Mr Clark the leader of the hacking scam.
“This defendant lives here in Tampa, he committed the crime here, and he’ll be prosecuted here,” Mr Warren said.