California college student tapped into phone accounts to steal cryptocurrency in SIM swap scam, feds say

A University of California, San Diego student obtained the cell phone accounts of at least 40 people in an effort to milk their cryptocurrency information and blackmailed one victim by threatening to release compromising photos, federal prosecutors said Monday.

Richard Yuan Li, 21, of Hercules, California, faces conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to engage in interstate communication with intent to extort and to commit computer fraud and abuse, among other charges. The charges were filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Prosecutors didn’t say how much cryptocurrency Li allegedly stole or how the SIM swap scheme went down. They said he activated at least 40 numbers on his iPhone between July and December 2018.

According to court documents, he is accused of participating in a SIM card scam and defrauding Apple. Prosecutors said Li and a conspirator tricked an Apple representative into sending them an iPhone 8 after claiming they has not been sent one that was purchased. 

They arranged for the telephone numbers of the victims to be swapped to SIM cards in cell phones in their possession, authorities said. By doing that, they were able to gain access to email and bank accounts and cryptocurrency wallets from their dorm rooms.


In one case, Li stole cryptocurrency from a New Orleans doctor and then tried to blackmail him into handing over more by threatening to share naked images of him. The doctor held multiple cryptocurrency accounts with Binance, Bittrex, Coinbase, Germini and others, according to court filings. 

Another person charged in connection with the scheme, Stephen Daniel Defiore, 36, of Brandon, Florida, was charged in February with performing the SIM swaps of phone customers for $500 a day. The cellphone company was not disclosed. 

Li faces up to 20 years in prison.