Financial Crime: UC San Diego student allegedly tapped into iPhones to steal crypto — and tried to blackmail one victim with naked photos


It was the worst kind of wrong number.

A 21-year-old student at the University of California San Diego allegedly commandeered the cell phone accounts of at least 40 people to plunder their cryptocurrency wallets, prosecutors said.

Richard Yuan Li, of Hercules, Calif., is accused of operating what is called a SIM-swap scam from his dorm room at Argo Hall. A SIM card — or subscriber identity module — is the chip inside a phone that connects a phone with its number and account.

They say Li conspired with a cell phone company employee to have unsuspecting victims’ SIMs and cell-phone accounts transferred to one contained in a stolen iPhone he possessed.

Once Li had gained access to the victims’ accounts, prosecutors say he and other unnamed conspirators would use the phone’s two-factor authentication credentials to reset passwords and gain access to the victims’ email, bank accounts and cryptocurrency wallets.

In at least one case, prosecutors say Li stole a significant amount of a New Orleans doctor’s cryptocurrency and then tried to blackmail him into handing over an additional $640,000 worth of bitcoin by threatening to share nude photos taken from the doctor’s email with people he knew, according to court filings.

Federal prosecutors in Louisiana say that in total, Li activated at least 40 numbers on his iPhone AAPL

between July and December, 2018.

Li’s lawyer, Bruce Ashley, said his client was a “bright and very earnest young man,” who had good academic records, but declined to comment on the allegations against him.

Li was initially charged in the scam in June 2020, but the case was recently expanded as prosecutors determined that he had allegedly scammed far more victims than initially thought.

In February, prosecutors charged cell phone company employee Stephen Daniel Defiore, 36, of Brandon, Fla. for allegedly transferring control of victim accounts to Li in exchange for $500 a day. The cell phone company wasn’t identified.

If convicted, Li faces a maximum term of 20 years in prison.

A lawyer for Defiore declined to comment.

Apple was not immediately available for comment.

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