Sitting in court, Ngo Minh Hieu knew he had fucked up big time.
In July 2015, the 25-year-old was sentenced to 13 years in prison for stealing personal information from approximately 200 million Americans—over 60 percent of the U.S. population—and selling it on the dark web.
That day in court, the judge told him that they had received some 10,000 complaint letters from his victims. Among them was a woman who had lost her house and was struggling to feed her children after her personal information was hijacked by malicious actors, landing her in crippling debt.
It was then that the gravity of what he had done dawned on him.
“I felt like a serial killer,” he told VICE World News. “When I was still making money and living a good life in Vietnam, I thought that information was just numbers.”
“I couldn’t imagine that stealing U.S. identities would bring so much damage to a person’s life.”
Today, his life is unrecognizable from that of the prolific hacker he was 10 years ago. After a seven-year stint in U.S. federal prison, the 33-year-old today is still trawling the dark web, but now working for the Vietnamese government to hunt cybercriminals like he once was. As part of this grand redemption arc, the past year has also seen him tackling a disturbing new breed of cyber scammer in Cambodia, where thousands of human trafficking victims are trapped and tortured in industrial-scale centers, forced to lure internet users into online frauds.
Fueling these attempts to make amends is the nagging guilt over his crime spree, described by U.S. authorities as one of the most prolific identity thefts in U.S. history, which he says continues to haunt many of his victims today.
“Every time I have a chance to speak with the media, I always try to apologize to American people as much as possible,” Hieu said. “Because I know the damage is already done and it’s very difficult to recover when your identity gets traded or sold to bad people on the dark web.”
Hieu grew up in Cam Ranh, a city in south Vietnam, where his parents owned a small electronics store. He got his first computer when he was 13, and by age 14, the curious teen was already dipping his toe into the world of hacking,…