THE expat mother of a reclusive British hacker jailed for five years in the US has revealed she thought he was ‘safe in his room’ on the Costa del Sol.

Sandra O’Connor told a US court she believed he was ‘not in touch with any dangers such as alcohol, drugs or bullying’.

But there was something she did not realise until it was far too late.

“In fact, he was involved in a far worse world,” the former lawyer told a New York judge.

Joseph James O'connor Instagram
Joseph James O’Connor was an unlikely mastermind behind an audacious hack of US tech giant Twitter that rocked the online world in 2020

The anguished mother’s comments came as her son, Joseph James O’Connor, was handed down the prison sentence for hacking into the Twitter accounts of, among others, Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

The 24-year-old was arrested at his home in Estepona in July 2021 after he undertook the hacking as part of a Bitcoin scam.

Liverpool-born O’Connor, who used the handle PlugwalkJoe, was extradited to America in April to await this week’s sentence.

His long-suffering mother, who was in New York for the hearings, told the court: “I wish I could have had more insight into this online gaming world he entered, and the dangers and influences he encountered. 

“I didn’t even realise it was occurring,” added the mother-of-three.

The ex-criminal lawyer explained how, after a troubled early childhood of bullying back home in Liverpool, she believed a move to Spain would do her son some good.

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O’Connor’s mother brought her troubled son to the tranquil town of Estepona on the Costa del Sol thinking he might find a happier life

While he spent virtually all of his time in his room on computers – reportedly nor emerging for as many as 30 days at a time – she felt his reclusive nature would at least keep him safe from ‘a world on the outside which he was ill-equipped to navigate.’

However, O’Connor was part of a hacking ring that shocked the online world when it managed to very publicly penetrate Twitter’s detailed security in 2020. 

The scam involved posting directly to an estimated 350 million followers from the accounts of Elon Musk, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian and Bill Gates accounts, among many others.

One bogus tweet from Biden read: “I am giving back to the community. All bitcoin sent to the address below will be sent back doubled! If you send $1,000, I will send back $2,000. Only doing this for 30 minutes.”

The unprecedented hacks were so serious, and carried out so acutely in the public eye, that Twitter took the drastic, unheard of step of suspending verified accounts belonging to some of the most famous people on the planet from posting messages. 

Although the ploy seemed an obvious fraud, an analysis revealed that 13 Bitcoins were transferred to the hackers’ wallet in 383 transactions in the following 24 hours – or $117,000 (€106,000).

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United States President Joe Biden was among a slew of celebrities who had his Twitter account hacked by O’Connor’s group

O’Connor also stalked underage girls and tried to extort famous people on other social networks, such as TikTok and Snapchat.

He hacked the actress Bella Thorne and stole 13 naked photos which he threatened to release if she did not promote his social accounts.

“It’ll be the entire internet looking at your personal shit,” one of his group of hacker friends wrote to her.

Thorne posted the pictures herself. “F*** u and the power you think u have over me,” she replied. “The FBI will be at your house shortly.”

O’Connor had laughed off the dangers of the US authorities when the New York Times managed to track him down.

“I don’t care,” he insisted. “They can come arrest me. I would laugh at them. I haven’t done anything.”

But that is exactly what happened when the Policia Nacional hauled the social recluse out of his bedroom hideaway in July 2021 in cooperation with the FBI. 

Joe Biden hacked tweet
A host of major US celebrities and political figures had similar Tweets like this posted from their accounts after they were hacked

Among the charges were a conspiracy to commit computer intrusions, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering, as well as stalking two victims.

The prosecution had requested the maximum sentence of 70 years in prison for O’Connor for the ten criminal charges.

In an appeal to Judge Rakoff for clemency, O’Connor apologised for his deeds. “I’m sorry. My crimes were stupid and senseless. I want a life that makes sense.”

He has been ordered to pay $794,000 the amount he received from his various scams. 

O’Connor will only serve a further two years and eight months behind bars, having already been in jail for 28 months, or roughly half his sentence.

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Actress Bella Thorne had her Snapchat hacked and naked photos stolen by O’Connor’s group, who tried to extort her to promote their social media accounts. Thorne instead posted the pictures herself. (Photo by Maurizio D Avanzo/IPA/Sipa USA)

“O’Connor’s criminal activities were flagrant and malicious and his conduct impacted multiple people’s lives,” Kenneth A Polite Jr, an assistant attorney general in the US justice department’s criminal division, said.

“He harassed, threatened and extorted his victims, causing substantial emotional harm.”

Two other members of O’Connor’s hacking ring have been charged with federal crimes: Nima Fazeli of Florida, and Mason Sheppard, from Bognor Regis in the UK.

“Two years later, it’s still hard to understand how harmless gaming led to this,” his mother Sandra told the court. “I am realistic that I have played a significant role in Joseph’s actions but ultimately, it is he who must take the responsibility and the consequences.

“The effects of this naive, thoughtless boy have had devastating consequences, not just to him but to us all, and Joseph needs to lead an exemplary life from here on in and atone.”


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