Iranian charged in theft of HBO shows, scripts

By Allen Cone  |  Nov. 22, 2017 at 11:46 AM
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Nov. 22 (UPI) -- An Iranian hacker has been charged with stealing unaired episodes of HBO shows and scripts of Game of Thrones, then demanding $6 million in bitcoin as ransom, federal authorities announced.

Behzad Mesri, 29, also known as Skote Vahshat, is accused of leaking previously unaired episodes of high-profile shows that included Curb Your Enthusiasm, Ballers and The Deuce, and stealing scripts and plot summaries for upcoming episodes of Game of Thrones, according to a release announcing the indictment in Manhattan's U.S. District Court.

The Justice Department said in the release Tuesday that Mesri was a member of the Iran-based Turk Black Hat Security hacking team who worked on behalf of the Iranian military. They conducted computer network attacks that targeted military systems, nuclear software systems and Israeli infrastructure.

Mesri is not accused of working on behalf of the Iranian government when he allegedly infiltrated HBO's networks.

"In the simplest of terms, he lurked in the alleyways of the Internet, identified the vulnerabilities of his victim, and pickpocketed their information from thousands of miles away," FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. said in a statement. "After he had successfully identified their proprietary secrets, he held their future for ransom."

Mesri's image has been placed on FBI "Wanted" posters.

"Although not arrested today, he will forever have to look over his shoulder until he is made to face justice," Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim said. "American ingenuity and creativity is to be cultivated and celebrated -- not hacked, stolen, and held for ransom. For hackers who test our resolve in protecting our intellectual property -- even those hiding behind keyboards in countries far away -- eventually, winter will come," a reference to an ominous catchphrase from Game of Thrones.

From approximately May to July, the Justice Department said Mesri successfully compromised multiple user accounts belonging to HBO employees and other authorized users, and then repeatedly obtained unauthorized access to HBO's computer servers.

Mesri said he would release the material and destroy data unless he was paid $5.5 million in bitcoin currency, the indictment charges. He then increased the ransom to $6 million.

He was charged with one count of wire fraud, one count of computer hacking, three counts of threatening to impair the confidentiality of information, one count of aggravated identity theft and one count of interstate transmission of an extortionate communication.

In 2016, seven Iranian computer experts with ties to the Iranian government were charged with cyber attacks against American banks and a dam in New York.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned six individuals and companies with alleged counterfeiting of several hundred million dollars in Yemeni notes to support Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force.

Last month, President Donald Trump declared Iran's Revolutionary Guard a supporter of terrorism and authorized the Treasury Department to impose tough sanctions limiting its access to goods and funding.

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