Who paid private investigator to have Scientology critics hacked?

Going ClearHacking email accounts is not something that upstanding members of society and legitimate organisations should ever do.

Which is why they get other people to do it for them.

As Lisa Vaas over on Sophos’s Naked Security blog describes, a private investigator was sentenced last week to three months in jail, after being found guilty of charges related to hacking email accounts belonging to high profile Scientology critics.

Eric Saldarriaga, of Astoria, New York, is said to have hired hackers online to secretly break into over 60 email accounts, including those belonging to two people who recently featured prominently in the book and HBO documentary “Going Clear”.

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Those targeted included journalist Tony Ortega, a long term critic of Scientology, and former Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder.

FBI press release

Saldarriaga, however, wasn’t the only one doing something wrong.

For instance, the hackers he hired furnished him with the usernames and passwords of those he was investigating. According to Assistant US Attorney Daniel Noble, those hired hackers were based overseas – making investigation more difficult and charging them with offences less likely.

But what about the other side of the equation?

Saldarriaga wasn’t interested in his targets on a whim. Someone was paying him to break into the email accounts of Scientology critics.

Victim Tony Ortega implored the judge in his victim impact statement to investigate who might have hired Saldarriaga to have him hacked:

Tony OrtegaI explained to Judge Sullivan about the astronomical coincidence it would require for Saldarriaga to target me and Mike Rinder and not do so on behalf of the Church of Scientology. Rinder left Scientology in 2007 after working as its international spokesman – since then, he’s been working hard to publicize the church’s controversies and abuses, and it’s made him the subject of intense surveillance and harassment by Scientology private investigators, something I’ve experienced myself as a journalist who writes about the church. As Rinder explained in his own victim impact statement, which he submitted Thursday, “The only thing Tony Ortega and I have in common is that we are at the top of Scientology’s enemies list, because we have publicly exposed their abusive practices.”

Mike Rinder made similar accusations that Scientology must have been involved in the hack in his statement to the court:

Mike Rinder“Scientology may well have used a “cut-out” to hire Mr. Saldarriaga so he can claim ignorance. But following the payments will ultimately go back to Scientology. This should be investigated as this is a pattern of behavior Scientology has gotten away with for too long – while making a mockery of the First Amendment protections they claim as a religion and a falsely obtained tax exempt status. Scientology is violating public policy by hiring people to commit felonies, and that is compounded by the fact they are using tax exempt funds. This sort of criminal behavior should cost them their exempt status under the law – these activities are being subsidized by US taxpayers. This will happen only if the USAO pursues this matter back to the perpetrators. Only then will justice truly be served.”

To Rinder and Ortega’s disappointment, Judge Richard J. Sullivan said it was not his court’s responsibility to investigate the Church of Scientology.

I don’t know whether Scientology hired Saldarriaga to spy upon its critics, and whether that was why all those email accounts got hacked. But it’s clear that the investigation shouldn’t end with Saldarriaga’s imprisonment.

If you haven’t yet seen Oscar-winning film-maker Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear” documentary yet, I heartily recommend it. It’s an eye-opening examination of just how far Scientology is prepared to go to silence and intimidate its critics.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief - Official Trailer

Graham Cluley is an award-winning keynote speaker who has given presentations around the world about cybersecurity, hackers, and online privacy. A veteran of the computer security industry since the early 1990s, he wrote the first ever version of Dr Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit for Windows, makes regular media appearances, and is the co-host of the popular "Smashing Security" podcast. Follow him on Twitter, Mastodon, Threads, Bluesky, or drop him an email.

7 comments on “Who paid private investigator to have Scientology critics hacked?”

  1. Mark Foster

    Thank you for making this story known to your readers.
    I would recommend 3 books to start one's journey down the scientology rabbit-hole: Lawrence Wright's GOING CLEAR, Jon Atack's LET'S SELL THESE PEOPLE A PIECE OF BLUE SKY, and Russell Miller's BARE-FACED MESSIAH. There are many more to read, of course. Reading these 3 books alone will, however, decisively prove the validity of your allusion to scientology's behavior towards its critics and ex-members.

  2. Coyote

    Well… it is very well known and quite obvious it applies here, that scientology has no problem with these things at all; indeed they have little to zero ethics. They deny many medical conditions and are perfectly fine with denying existence instead of treatment of serious illnesses. But that's only one of many issues.

    I know they've had dealings with Anonymous (and good on Anonymous) and others too. I seem to recall (but vaguely) the wiki entry for the cult is another source of problems (and when they spot changing of entries to remove the supposed falsehoods, those responsible are banned).

    But let's be honest here – they're not a church; they're a cult. They are only a church by name. They are control freaks, they go to extreme measures (like here) to attack their opponents and otherwise make sure only things they approve of, are said about them. They feel there is nothing wrong with them and they feel this is so important that they will do whatever it takes to ensure this is the accepted view of them. Every part of this also defies science and whether they truly refer to science or not I don't know (or care) but if it is a reference to science that itself is a lie. Sadly, even if they left everyone alone, they deny medical conditions and that is unethical, immoral, dangerously stupid and rightfully criminal (if they want to ignore it in themselves, well then so much the better; but if they deny it in others that is inexcusable). The problem there is kids that have no choice (and are likely brainwashed too). Just checking Wiki there is the claim of brainwashing and I'm not at all surprised. Ironically, the way they could stop some of the criticism they so deeply hate, would be accepting and stopping this behaviour. But I don't see that happening.

  3. Anonymous

    All ties in to their 'Fair Game' policy. Scientology is a nasty organization.

  4. David L

    Hi all,

    I have seen the documentary,and it's a eye opener for sure. The tactics they employ are familiar though. Any group of zealots act in ways that are sociopathic and psychopathic. It is a sign of moral degeneration that the opposition MUST be silenced and shamed at all costs.

  5. Kathleen

    The judge is with scientology.

    1. Graham CluleyGraham Cluley · in reply to Kathleen

      Got any evidence of that? I think Tony Ortega and Mike Rinder would have mentioned that concern if they shared that belief.

  6. Vito

    If the Church of Scientology is behind these attacks (and based on what I've read in this article, it certainly seems likely), then they ought to have their (butts kicked, arses in a sling, [insert favorite punitive metaphor],…etc.). As far as I'm concerned, that should include losing their tax-exempt status.

    I fully sympathize with the victims, but Mr. Rinder's argument is inaccurate in one respect—namely in his assertion that the Scientologists are being "subsidized by U.S. taxpayers". No they're not. That argument presumes that it's "normal" or acceptable for everyone else who’s not exempt to be paying punitive taxes in the first place. It isn't. As Chris Rock once said, "You don't pay taxes — they TAKE taxes." It's not a trivial distinction to those who understand the principle underlying Chief Justice John Marshall's warning: "The power to tax is the power to destroy."

    In any case, if it turns out that Mr. Saldariagga gets to warm a prison cell and those who hired him get off Scot-free, it would be just another example of how the legal "justice" system typically has little to do with moral justice. Judge Richard J. Sullivan might well be technically correct in saying that it was not his court's responsibility to investigate the Church of Scientology, but he blew an opportunity to do his own homework, and use the stature of the court to shine a light on Scientologism. My guess is that such “clear” scrutiny would send some cockroaches scurrying for cover.

    Thanks for another great article, Graham.

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