Friday, June 26, 2015

Private Investigator Hired Hackers To Obtain User Names Passwords for Emails of People He Was Investigating. Being Sentenced Today For One Count of Federal Conspiracy to Commit Computer Hacking

Anyone tempted to hire an investigator to obtain access to another’s emails or hacks into someone else’s email should know that it is a federal crime. 

In addition, just because you see hacking services “advertised” on the Internet or in email solicitations do not mean that they are legal. Today, June 26, 2015, federal prosecutors are expected to seek a prison sentence of up to six months for a licensed private investigator in New York City, Eric Saldarriaga, 41, who admitted to hacking into emails on behalf of his clients.

Mr. Saldarriaga, age 41, pleaded guilty on March 6 before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Sullivan to one count of conspiracy to commit computer hacking, paid an unidentified overseas firm to secure the login credentials and passwords for the email accounts he wanted access to without permission.

Like many federal cases, the facts occurred years ago. In the plea agreement, Mr. Saldarriaga admitted that over six years ago, beginning in 2009 he found services advertised on the Internet (the “Hacking Services”). He then paid the Hacking Services to provide him with login credentials, including usernames and passwords, for e-mail accounts of numerous individuals he was investigating on behalf of his clients as well as individuals in whom Mr. Saldarriaga was interested for personal reasons. Mr. Saldarriaga then admitted that he unlawfully accessed and reviewed victims’ e-mail communications. In total, Mr. Saldarriaga  admitted that he hired Hacking Services to hack into, and provide unauthorized access to, at least 60 different e-mail accounts. These individuals are the “victims” in this federal case.

Mr. Saldarriaga has been the only one charged with a crime, even though some of those who hired him appear to have been aware of what he was doing. Mr. Saldarriaga's clients are known to have included lawyers, wealthy people and even other private investigators.  Some of the victims of Mr. Saldarriaga's email hacking, like Tony Ortega, a former editor of The Village Voice who has written about Scientology, have been pressing the prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office to reveal the name of the clients.

The sentence was left up to Judge Sullivan and in sentencing memoranda, the defense sought probation while the prosecutors sought six months of prison. The maximum sentence for this charge is 5 years in federal custody but that is not expected since this is Mr. Saldarriaga’s first offense and he only made $5,000 from these hacking assignments. The assigned Assistant U.S. Attorney argued in a pre-sentencing memorandum that Mr. Saldarriaga's invasion of privacy warranted a stronger punishment than the six months of home detention and three years of supervised probation recommended by the court's own probation department. "Unlike defendants in a gun or drug case, who often act without reflection, there is reason to believe that individuals who engage in hacking and other forms of cybercrime can be deterred by a substantial threat of penalties," he wrote.

Judge Sullivan later sentenced Mr. Saldarriaga to three months in prison because the guidelines showed that economic losses by the victims were minimal. However he noted that the guidelines do not cover the drastic invasions of privacy performed and ordered that Mr. Saldarriaga also serve three months of home detention after his release as a deterrent to others. Two victims who addressed the court requested that sentencing be put off until they discover who paid Mr. Saldarriaga to hack their emails. One of the victims suspected it was the Church of Scientology who has hired investigators before to follow him after he wrote news articles critical of the church. Yet Judge Sullivan noted it was not his job to investigate that matter and that he could not force Mr. Saldarriage to reveal who hired him.

The lesson from this case is that while all attorneys and parties in a case would enjoy having an upper hand by knowing the private communications of others, any such temptation must be resisted. As I tell my clients when they ask me to do something that is not legal in order to gain advantage: “who will be representing you while I am in jail?” Litigation and business/family disputes can be incredibly frustrating especially when the other side is not fair or is incredibly unreasonable. However, ethics and following the law are required and everyone should use legal means to obtain information. There are a wide number of ways to obtain information legally and this should be exhausted in these cases.

Posted by Tracy Green, Esq.

Green and Associates, Attorneys at Law


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