A Bahamian man hacked into celebrities' email accounts to steal unreleased movie and TV scripts and private sex tapes and sought to peddle some of the scripts, boasting to an undercover agent that he had dossiers on at least 130 accounts of stars and bigshots in entertainment, sports and media, federal prosecutors said.
Alonzo Knowles was being held without bail after a court appearance Tuesday on criminal copyright infringement and identity theft charges as prosecutors described a scheme that also involved proffering an actor's passport, Social Security numbers for three professional athletes, unreleased tracks from a singer-songwriter's upcoming album and an explicit video grabbed from a radio host's email account.
Though none of the victims were identified, prosecutor Kristy Greenberg told a judge that several agents had spoken to were "quite traumatized" by the theft of their personal information.
"This case has all of the elements of the kind of blockbuster script the defendant, Alonzo Knowles, is alleged to have stolen," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement. "Unfortunately, these circumstances are all too real."
The case comes at a time when security is a sensitive subject in Hollywood. Hackers calling themselves Guardians of Peace broke into Sony Pictures Entertainment computers last year and released thousands of emails, documents, Social Security numbers and other personal information in an attempt to derail the release of the North Korean-focused comedy "The Interview."
The U.S. government blamed North Korea for the attack. Subsequently, former Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal left her position after the hack revealed embarrassing emails that included racially insensitive remarks about President Barack Obama's purported taste in movies, and Sony Pictures agreed to pay current and former employees up to $8 million to reimburse them for identity-theft losses and other costs.
Also last year, hackers broke into female celebrities' personal Apple accounts, stole nude photos and posted them on the web. Jennifer Lawrence and Mary Elizabeth Winstead have said they were victims of the hack attack.
The investigation into the 23-year-old Knowles began only this month, after "a popular radio host" received an unsolicited offer from someone selling scripts for the next season of a popular TV drama, according to court papers. The radio host contacted the show's executive producer, who called Department of Homeland Security investigators.
Authorities followed that offer to Knowles, of Freeport, Bahamas, who called himself "Jeff Moxey" and claimed to have "exclusive content" worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, Homeland Security Special Agent Michael McDonald said in a complaint.
Within days, Knowles — via video call — was showing an undercover agent scripts for an unreleased comedy movie, a new TV show, and other materials, some marked as having been distributed to actors, the complaint said. Knowles said he'd gotten into celebrities' accounts by sending either a computer virus or a false warning that the person's account had been hacked, and then using the information he got back to change the accounts' email settings so he could maintain ongoing access, it said.
"The possibilities are definitely unlimited," Knowles told the undercover agent in a recorded conversation, according to the complaint.
On Dec. 12, Knowles sent the undercover agent a sexually explicit image and a video from the email account of a second radio host that the host had received from another victim described as a "television host and columnist," the complaint said. It says he claimed, "This is just an example of things I can get."
At a meeting in New York on Monday, the day he was arrested, he offered to sell the undercover agent about 15 TV and movie scripts for $80,000, it said.
This story makes the correction that an explicit video was obtained from a radio host's email account; it was not video of the radio host.
Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.