January's GQ has a fascinating piece on a fellow who turned up in our crime coverage the past couple years: Luis Mijangos, the so-called "sextortion" hacker out of Santa Ana sentenced Sept. 1 to six years in prison for cyber-terrorism.
The 32-year-old undocumented immigrant hacked into dozens of computers to obtain personal data--and in some cases demanded sexually explicit videos from females lest he email their boyfriends the lie that the women willingly sent him risque images he actually obtained on the sly.
Mijangos, who has been confined to a wheelchair since getting caught in gang crossfire as a teen, was obsessed with the X-Men character Professor X, so much so that his handle with the people he sextorted was "Mistah X." In "The Hacker is Watching," David Kushner writes that Amy Wright, a 20-year-old brunette at UC Irvine, was on her laptop when she got an IM from mistahxxxrightme asking for webcam sex. When Wright told the stranger off, Mistah X IM'd back that he knew all about her, describing her dorm room, the color of her walls, the pattern on her sheets, the pictures on her walls. "You have a pink vibrator," he wrote before posting a shot of her in that very room, naked on the bed, having webcam sex with her boyfriend James Kelly.
Mistah X also IM'd Kelly's ex-girlfriend Carla Gagnon with a video still of her in the nude, as well as an online boast that he had control of Kelly's computer. The couple complained to campus police, who were powerless. The task of hunting down Mistah X/Luis Mijangos fell to agents FBI agents Tanith Rogers and Jeff Kirkpatrick of the FBI's cyber program in Los Angeles. Portrayed by Kushner as "the unit's own Mulder and Scully," the tech-savvy agents began with their only link to the hacker, his email account obtained from his Internet provider. With that, the feds tracked Mijangos' communication with dozens of other victims before tracking him to his Santa Ana home.
Anyone else feel better about that anonymous email they sent their ex- one booze-fueled night?
The agents managed to get a photo of Mijangos, put his home under surveillance and discovered he had drifted from somewhat harmless to criminal hacking.
He wasn't getting rich, but Mijangos says he earned enough to buy a $5,000 titanium wheelchair that he tricked out with $400 wheels. He felt reborn. "When it comes to hacking, yes, I'm not going to deny it--it's like you feel like you accomplish something," he says. "Like you feel proud of doing something that not many people can do." In the early days of cybercrime, hackers had to code their software from scratch, but as he searched the Web, Mijangos found dozens of programs, with names like SpyNet and Poison Ivy, available cheaply, if not free. They allowed him to access someone's desktop but limited the number of computers he could control simultaneously. Bragging to his peers, Mijangos says he found a way to modify an existing program that supported roughly thirty connections so that it could handle up to 600 computers at once.
He decided to peep out a hacked computer's camera while the Latina user was away from the keyboard--and eventually watcher her, in her bedroom, singing and dancing as she vacuumed the floor, completely unaware that he was watching.
Mijangos moved on to a blonde, a prostitute, who looked great naked, and eventually traded messages with her that mistakenly gave the impression he was a rich guy with a new sports car. He mostly eavesdropped on the everyday moments of people's lives. He tried to make money spying on wives or girlfriends via a Spanish-language hacker website called Indetectables. He got turned off when he discovered one client who hired him had actually sent threatening messages to his girlfriend. But, as the story shows, his attempt at warning her turned into another solicitation of money and Mijangos threats against her to "tell your friends to back off, you dont wanna mess with a team of hackers." She went to the cops.
When armed FBI agents burst into his home on March 10, 2010, Mijangos mistakenly assumed the commotion was a surprise party for his 31st birthday. But the feds came not with an invitation but a search warrant, and they were the ones who left with gifts: four laptops, scattered thumb drives and memory sticks, and a BlackBerry. These produced evidence of 15,000 webcam-video captures, 900 audio recordings, 13,000 screen captures and 230 victims, including juveniles. One lived as far away as New Zealand.
"At the beginning, mostly it was because I was frustrated, depressed, and . . . stupid," Mijangos reportedly Kushner in October.
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But as we continued talking, another side of Mijangos emerged, the man who was born after that drive-by years ago. Every young person he spied on, he said, was another person who seemed to be living the life he had been denied. "These people were having fun," he said. "They were making plans for prom, to go to parties. I never had that. So I decided to send those e-mails, thinking, Oh, you have all these wonderful things. Why don't you have a bad day just like me?"
He claimed he had already wanted out by the time the FBI came storming in. This even though he boasted of ways he had discovered to hide his identity without government counter-snoops knowing. Indeed, Mijangos said quick-fix solutions are going to stop hackers.
"Nothing is secure," he reportedly told GQ. "If we're going to hack you, we're going to hack you."