Calif. man loses $1 million life savings in cell phone hack, sues AT&T

(CNN) - The victim of a type of cell phone hacking called SIM swapping is suing AT&T, his phone services provider, after he lost $1 million and 90% of his net worth in a matter of minutes when his cell number was hijacked.

Rob Ross lost $1 million and 90% of his net worth in a matter of minutes when his cell number was hijacked in October 2018. He is suing AT&T, whose phone services he was using at the time. (Source: CNN)

Rob Ross says he was in his San Francisco home office in October 2018 when he noticed an iPhone notification for a withdrawal request from one of his financial institutions.

“I thought, ‘That’s weird. I didn’t make a withdrawal request.’ Then, I looked back at my phone, and I saw that I had no service,” he said. “I had $1 million stolen that night. It included my daughter’s college fund, my retirement.”

SIM swapping targets the SIM cards located in cell phones. It can happen when a hacker, whether through bribes or tricks, somehow gets a customer service representative to make a SIM swap over the phone.

This gives the hacker access to the victim’s phone number, opening the door to emails, bank accounts and other apps.

“SIM swapping is a new way for crooks to essentially take over a victim’s cell phone while they’re sleeping,” said Erin West, the deputy district attorney for California’s Santa Clara County. “The entire process can take as short as 20 minutes and take a victim from having $1 million in cash to literally not one cent left.”

Looking for help, Ross reached out to an investigator with a group called React, a special task force of local, state and federal agencies fighting cybercrime.

Investigators connected the phone used in the crime to other SIM swapping cases. The phone was in Manhattan, and combined with other evidence, its owner was identified as 21-year-old social media star Nicholas Truglia.

“When we looked at Truglia’s social media after the theft from Rob Ross, he was wearing very expensive clothing, very expensive jewelry, pictures on private jets, drinking expensive champagne. It was clear to us that he was living beyond his means of any legitimate job, which is a total red flag for us,” investigator Samy Tarazi said.

Police searched Truglia’s apartment and found evidence he had committed the swap.

“He had created a persona of being a rich financial genius who had somehow come upon this money through investments,” Tarazi said. “But as we unfolded all of that, everything about him was a lie.”

Truglia was charged on multiple counts, including computer crime with the intent to defraud. He pleaded not guilty.

Ross says he doesn’t know if he’ll get all of his money back. He is suing AT&T, whose phone services he was using at the time he was hacked.

“Ultimately, it’s always going to come down to human failures at large corporations. If you can trick, bribe or convince someone to do something bad, that’s where the liability lies, and they should be held accountable,” Tarazi said.

A spokesperson for AT&T disputed Ross’ allegations. The company said SIM swaps are committed by sophisticated criminals and that it is working with “our industry, law enforcement and consumers to stop and prevent this type of crime.”

SIM hacks have been reported on all the major American cell phone networks.

Industry experts urge consumers not to use mobile phone numbers as the only source of identity authentication on their online accounts. Using your email for verification is a better option. Different passwords are also recommended.

Copyright 2020 CNN, Rob Ross. All rights reserved.