International sextortionist pleads guilty to hacking, blackmail from US embassy in London

© Luke MacGregor
A former employee of the American embassy in London has pleaded guilty to myriad counts of stalking, extortion, computer fraud and more for a widespread and “sadistic” scheme that he carried out against hundreds of women for more than two years.

Michael C. Ford, 36, pleaded guilty to nine counts of cyberstalking, seven counts of computer hacking to extort and one count of wire fraud after spending two years preying on college-aged women from his embassy computer, federal prosecutors said. At the time, he was living in the United Kingdom and working as an administrative support employee for the State Department at the embassy in London.

Ford “tormented women" across the US by "threatening to humiliate them unless they provided him with sexually explicit photos and videos,” US Attorney John Horn said. “This sadistic conduct is all the more disturbing as Ford is alleged to have used the US Embassy in London as a base for his cyberstalking campaign.”

Between January 2013 through May 2015, Ford used a series of aliases to hack the computers of at least 250 women to obtain sexually explicit photographs and other personal information from victims’ email and social media accounts. He then threatened to share the photographs and personal information unless the victims provided him with additional explicit photos and videos, the Department of Justice said in a statement.

The embassy employee posed as a member of a fictitious “account deletion team” for Google. Masking his email as coming from an official Google account, he then sent notices to thousands of potential victims, especially those who were college-aged women in sororities, to warn them that their accounts would be deleted if they did not provide their passwords. He then accessed their emails and social media accounts to steal explicit photographs and personal identifying information, which he saved to his personal repository.

After hacking into and stealing “compromising photographs” from an 18-year-old Kentucky woman identified in the May 15 affidavit for Ford’s arrest warrant as Jane Doe One, he then “demanded that Jane Doe One take videos of other girls” and “sexy girls” who were undressing in changing rooms at pools, gyms, and clothing stores, and then give the videos to him, Eric J. Kasik, of the Department of State Diplomatic Security Service, wrote.

“I want you to video girls in the changing room [of your gym],” Ford is believed to have written in one such email. “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!"

One of the accounts that Ford asked women to send their photos to was named “LookatwhatIhave666,” said Senior Trial Attorney Mona Sedky of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“He targeted women at US colleges and universities and was looking for women who were members of sororities... and aspiring models,” Sedky said. “He is just relentless.”

A spreadsheet of 262 email addresses was found on Ford’s computer at the London embassy; several were associated with schools such as Ball State University and the University of Michigan, Sedky said, adding that he spent hours phishing, hacking and cyberstalking women from work, despite warnings from the State Department that embassy computers were monitored.

“He was very brazen,” she said.

If the women balked at his blackmail attempt by either refusing to comply or begging him to leave them alone, Ford responded with additional threats, including by reminding the victims that he knew where they lived, the DOJ said. In some instance, he followed through by sending the explicit material to their family and friends.

In an email to one woman who refused to go along with Ford’s request he wrote, “don’t worry, it’s not like I know where you live,” then sent another e-mail 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, the DOJ said. He then sent a follow-up email that described her home: “I like your red fire escape ladder, easy to climb.”

After Ford was arrested at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia in May, he made a three-hour confession to the arresting agents, Sedky said. He was fired from his job at the embassy the following day.

"The individual named in this case was a locally hired administrative support employee who was not a member of the Foreign Service," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters after Ford was arrested in May. "As of May 18th, the individual is no longer working at the embassy."

Ford grew up in Alpharetta, Georgia, where he attended a Catholic high school. After attending Valdosta State University, he married his high school sweetheart, his lawyers told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They have a 22-month-old child.

Sentencing is set for mid-February.