Vargas, a 20-year veteran of the police force, has been accused of ordering hacks of at least 43 personal email accounts belonging to at least 30 people, 19 of whom are current NYPD employees, including fellow detectives. He's also accused of paying the service to provide credentials for accessing a target's cellphone records.
According to a complaint unsealed Tuesday in federal court, from April 2010 to October 2012, "Vargas paid certain email hacking services to hack into numerous email accounts which did not belong to him, in order to obtain the login credentials for those accounts."
The primary target of Vargas' alleged surveillance operation was reportedly his former girlfriend, who's also an NYPD employee. Police officials told The New York Times that the couple had a child together, but had broken up.
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The investigation was conducted by the FBI, together with the NYPD's internal affairs bureau. Law enforcement officials told the Times that during the course of an investigation into a pay-for-hacking operation being run from Los Angeles, investigators discovered evidence that some NYPD employees' email accounts had been hacked, which lead them back to Vargas.
FBI investigators said that a digital forensic review of Vargas' hard drive revealed that he'd accessed online cellphone records for July to September 2012, for at least one of his targets. He allegedly also accessed records that listed the phone numbers of everyone to whom the account holder had sent text messages.
According to the complaint, in November 2011, Vargas also accessed the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), which is a centralized database used by U.S. law enforcement agencies to track crime-related information, and obtained information on at least two of the NYPD officers for whom he'd already obtained online email access credentials.
According to the complaint, which was filed Monday by FBI special agent Samad Shahrani, who's part of the bureau's Cyber Criminal Intrusion Squad, email hacking services such as the one Vargas allegedly employed typically accept an email-account hacking order, then provide the client with a screenshot of the targeted account's homepage and message saying that the requested account credentials have been obtained and used successfully. At that time, they demand payment, typically by credit card, PayPal or another online payment processor. Shahrani said that after reviewing Vargas' bank and PayPal records, he identified about $4,050 that had been paid to email hacking services, at a rate of $50 to $250 per hacked account.
Vargas has been charged with conspiracy to commit computer hacking and unauthorized access to a law enforcement database.
"Of all places, the police department is not a workplace where one should have to be concerned about an unscrupulous fellow employee," said George Venizelos, who heads the FBI's New York office, in a statement. "Unlike the email accounts, the defendant didn't need to pay anyone to gain access to the NCIC database. But access is not authorization, and he had no authorization."