Meet the hackers who flip seized Instagram handles and cryptocurrency in a shady, buzzing underground market for stolen accounts and usernames. Their victims’ weakness? Phone numbers.
It seemed like any other warm September night in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. Rachel Ostlund had just put her kids to bed and was getting ready to go to sleep herself. She was texting with her sister when, unexpectedly, her cell phone lost service. The last message Rachel received was from T-Mobile, her carrier. The SIM card for her phone number, the message read, had been “updated.”
Rachel did what most people would have done in that situation: she turned the phone off and on again. It didn’t help.
She walked upstairs and told her husband Adam that her phone wasn’t working. Adam tried to call Rachel’s number using his cell phone. It rang, but the phone in Rachel’s hands didn’t light up. Nobody answered. Rachel, meanwhile, logged into her email and noticed someone was resetting the passwords on many of her accounts. An hour later, Adam got a call.
“Put Rachel on the phone,” demanded a voice on the other end of the line. “Right now.”
Adam said no, and asked what was going on.
“We’re fucking you, we’re raping you, and we’re in the process of destroying your life,” the caller said. “If you know what’s good for you, put your wife on the phone.”
“We’re going to destroy your credit,” the person continued, naming some of Rachel and Adam’s relatives and their addresses, which the couple thinks the caller obtained from Rachel’s Amazon account. “What would happen if we hurt them? What would happen if we destroyed their credit and then we left them a message saying it was because of you?”
The couple didn’t know it yet, but they had just become the latest victims of hackers who hijack phone numbers in order to steal valuable Instagram usernames and sell them for Bitcoin. That late summer night in 2017, the Ostlunds were talking to a pair of these hackers who’d commandeered Rachel’s Instagram, which had the handle @Rainbow. They were now asking Rachel and Adam to give up her @Rainbow Twitter account.