"He demanded payment for the return of control."
Gurvinder Bhangu, aged 23, of Hamstead, Birmingham, was jailed for 21 months after he hacked into the Instagram accounts of US-based influencers and blackmailed them when he was a teenager.
Birmingham Crown Court heard he would spend 24 hours a day in his bedroom and saw hacking as a “puzzle”.
When he was 16, he illegally accessed one victim’s email and Instagram account, which had 1.1 million followers.
Bhangu then demanded money to return access to the owner.
He managed to steal £4,600 from the victim.
Then, aged 18, Bhangu hacked into the email and social media accounts of two more victims. He attempted to blackmail them, however, he was unsuccessful.
The first incident dated back to 2015 while the other two victims were targeted in 2016.
Police said Bhangu committed the crimes through “social engineering” using compromised details to reset account security information.
Social engineering is where personal information is obtained through deception.
An investigation was carried out by the West Midlands Regional Cyber Crime Unit in association with other law enforcement agencies following the report in 2017.
West Midlands Police worked alongside the United States Secret Service and Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office REACT Taskforce in California to prove Bhangu was responsible.
Mr Mitchell, prosecuting, said: “He gained access to the accounts and took over control of them. He demanded payment for the return of control.
“He was selling accounts to others and using accounts for other fraudulent activity.
“The victims were blackmailed by the defendant.
“He boasted of being a prolific hacker. One person suggested he might go to prison for it. He said: ‘no, who cares?’
“During his police interview, he said: ‘It’s not even a crime. The judge will just laugh and won’t know what it’s about’.”
Bhangu was convicted of blackmail, fraud by false representation and offences under the Computer Misuse Act.
Mr Barker, defending, said: “He was aged 22 when he entered a plea.
“He has no previous convictions and the offences occurred in early 2015 when he was 16-years-old and June 2017 when he was approximately 18 years and four months.
“Since his arrest, nearly four years have passed without incident.
“These offences were committed when the defendant was young, depressed and socially isolated.
“He was in his bedroom 24/7. He operated in a virtual world and had minimal contact with other human beings.
“He saw the hacking of Instagram and email accounts as a puzzle in which he could benefit.”
Judge Roderick Henderson said the sentencing hoped to send a message to anyone else “tempted to do what [he] did and cause enormous damage to people”.
He acknowledged there had been a long delay between the offences but said:
“These were computer hacking offences.
“I have to consider the appropriate level of sentence and the question of whether I require you to serve this now or not.
“The fact you passed on details of people’s computer access details to other people is a significant aggravating feature.
“In my judgement, this needs to be marked by a sentence that you have to serve.
“It needs to be understood by people that are tempted to do what you did and cause enormous damage to people.”
Gurvinder Bhangu was jailed for 21 months and ordered to pay £4,600 compensation.
In a statement, West Midlands Police advised:
“You can reduce the chances of becoming the victim of an unlawful online account takeover by making use of multi-factor authentication services and using strong passwords.
“You can get online safety advice on the National Cyber Security Centre website https://www.ncsc.gov.uk/.”