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Florida man arrested in celebrity email hacking case

Suspect mined data from magazines and websites to get passwords, officials say

October 13, 2011|By Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times
  • Steven Martinez, center, of the FBIs L.A. field office, announces the arrest of a Florida man.
Steven Martinez, center, of the FBIs L.A. field office, announces the arrest… (Katie Falkenberg / For The…)

For months, the story had intrigued Hollywood: Email accounts of celebrities were being hacked, and the perpetrator's motive remained a mystery. Some figured the hacker was planning to blackmail his victims. Others thought he might be trying to sell compromising information to the highest bidder.

After a yearlong investigation, FBI officials Wednesday identified the man they said had broken into the email accounts of Scarlett Johansson, Christina Aguilera, Mila Kunis and several dozen others. He wasn't a Hollywood insider but a 35-year-old living in Jacksonville, Fla., who apparently didn't do it for the money, authorities said.

The arrest reflected a new breed of stalker that stars must battle in the social media age.

"The case brings us to a new word in the expanding lexicon of cybercrime: 'hackerrazzi,'" said Steven Martinez, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles field office.

Working from his home computer, Christopher Chaney painstakingly worked his way into the email systems, officials say.

Mining details of the stars' personal lives in celebrity magazines and websites as well as Twitter and Facebook posts, Chaney looked for potential passwords that would give him access to their accounts, the FBI said. The name of a dog. A favorite movie. An old address. A sibling's nickname.

Once he cracked the password, officials charged, he hit a gold mine, gaining access to the stars' address books as well as any photos and other files saved on their emails. He used an email forwarding program that automatically duplicated any messages the stars received into his account. So even when the celebrities change their passwords, he'd know about it, officials said.

Chaney, who officials said appears to have been unemployed, was arrested this week in Jacksonville on various hacking charges and faces up 121 years in prison if found guilty on all counts.

Martinez said authorities believe Chaney hacked 50 victims, many of whom he found by going through the address books of celebrities.

Hollywood figures are increasingly going online to connect with their fans. Some stars, including Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore and Kim Kardashian, have millions of Twitter followers and frequently send out details of their daily lives.

"There is so much information about celebrities now out there. Entertainment shows discuss celebrities' birthdays and their kids' names. Wikipedia and imdb.com are playing grounds for these hackers seeking information," said Edward Lozzi, a Beverly Hills publicist who says two of his clients' Facebook accounts have been compromised. "It is a tough balance between publicity and private information for a celebrity in the Internet age."

Lozzi said he cautions his clients that anything confidential should be sent by regular mail.

"If you take a picture on your phone or send an email image," he said, "I tell them assume it is going to be made public."

The FBI has been dealing with several similar cases in recent months. Last month, Cody Kretsinger, 23, of Phoenix, was arrested and charged with allegedly breaking into the Sony Pictures computer network, including the email system.

Although photos and personal details about celebrities are a hot commodity, FBI officials said they have no evidence Chaney tried to sell information he collected or blackmail anyone. He did, however, provide some photos to celebrity websites, they allege.

The FBI said Chaney meticulously collected data on his targets, which he used to discover passwords and figure out the answers to security questions posed when people change their email passwords.

According to the indictment, Chaney allegedly began his hacking escapades in November 2010 when he managed to tap into the email accounts of Aguilera and her stylist friend, Simone Harouche. Within a month, an image of Aguilera in a revealing Vegas showgirl outfit circulated on several celebrity websites. That December, he allegedly hacked into Kunis' emails and stole several photos.

That same month, he got into Johansson's email, which contained several nude images of her. Those images soon made it onto several celebrity websites.

Actress Renee Olstead's account was hacked in January. In February, images of the "Secret Life of the American Teenager" star began appearing on celebrity websites.

richard.winton@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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