In January 2018, a team of some half-dozen computer hackers — scattered across Europe and the United States — scammed their way into Michael Terpin’s cryptocurrency account, fleeced it and laundered the funds: some $23.8 million, according to a bombshell lawsuit.
Allegedly at the center of the heist was Westchester teen Ellis Pinsky. According to papers filed May 7 in Manhattan federal court, Pinsky is “an evil mastermind.” The suit asks for $71.4 million.
The wildest part? Ellis was just 15 years old at the time of the theft.
To neighbors and classmates at Irvington HS, he was an ordinary 10th-grader who ran track, played soccer, loved cool sneakers and got good grades. Ellis’ bedroom in the $1.3 million home he shared with his family, including his NYU Langone-physician mother, had three computer monitors for playing his favorite games, Counter-Strike and Call of Duty.
But according to an insider, there was at least one unusual thing about Ellis. As related in the complaint, he once allegedly wrote to an acquaintance, “I could buy you and all your family. I have 100 million dollars.” The complaint also alleges that an accomplice saw, in December 2017, “records indicating that Ellis had $70 million.”
Pals outside the heist apparently viewed Ellis as a virtual-money wunderkind. “His best friend thought he was making money through trading Bitcoin and stock,” the insider said.
But the complaint alleges that Ellis was the apparent ringleader in the scheme against Terpin, who is a pioneer in the world of cryptocurrency: “In his early teens, [Ellis] began hacking computers with the mission of accessing his victims’ private accounts where they store their cryptocurrency holdings or private information.”
Ellis’ attorney, Noam Biale, told The Post: “Ellis was a child at the time of the alleged conduct . . . It is deeply unfortunate that Mr. Terpin has chosen to bring [a] lawsuit, full of smears and baseless allegations, for no imaginable purpose other than spite.”
Video games were allegedly the teen’s gateway to crime. “Ellis is a gamer. That was his primary interest,” the insider said, adding that private video-game chatrooms — where Ellis was allegedly a regular — on platforms such as Discord and Skype are often full of people bragging about hacks. “From there he got interested in stealing cool usernames.”
Using a technique known as SIM-swapping, hackers remotely transfer a victim’s digital identity from the SIM card that controls the victim’s phone to a blank SIM card in one of the hackers’ phones. Sometimes this is done to steal a victim’s social-media identity, as “OG handles” — such as @A or @evil — can be sold for big bucks.
Ellis also allegedly used SIM-swapping to steal cryptocurrency. Going from nicking names to pulling off multimillion-dollar heists is not that much of a leap, the insider insists: “Once you are in somebody’s phone, stealing valuable names, taking their Bitcoin seems obvious. Plus, stealing crypto is impersonal. For kids who spend their whole lives staring at screens and playing games, it feels natural.”
According to Terpin’s attorney Pierce O’Donnell, Ellis and his crowd were always on the lookout for vulnerable marks. As alleged in the complaint, one of the teen’s collaborators, Nick Truglia, specialized in that task. Four years older than Ellis and a onetime finance/economics major at Baruch College, Truglia’s “assignments included . . . obtaining [a victim’s] cellphone and passcode numbers, conning the mobile-phone carrier into giving him or another imposter a new SIM card and then handing the scam off to [Ellis] to execute the hack,” the complaint states. Last year, Truglia was arrested and charged with another hack. He is currently out on bail. In a civil case, a default judgment was issued against him for the Terpin robbery and he was slapped by a California court with a record-setting $75.8 million judgment.
The case against Ellis alleges that the teen oversaw the hijacking of Terpin’s BlackBerry — which led to his digital vault, called a “native wallet,” where the $23.8 million was stashed. Forty-eight hours later, said Terpin, the thieves had laundered his virtual cash.
“Your phone goes dead and theirs is alive,” he told The Post last year. “Then they own you.”
As the alleged ringleader, Ellis apparently had a knack for organizing and bullying. “He would tell everyone what to do [during heists],” said the insider. “He bragged about [the Terpin robbery] being his job. He’s a very smart guy and a control freak. If you pissed him off, he would start texting you from weird numbers and threaten you. He’d call your parents and say weird things.”
One such alleged victim was a chat-room pal who lived nearby. According to a 2018 report that the 16-year-old pal filed with Eastchester, NY, police, Ellis “made threats to me about having me or my mom killed” after he accidentally let strangers into their chatroom.
Things apparently escalated when the pal was allegedly enlisted by Ellis to help launder the Terpin money and lost some $700,000 after he sent funds to the wrong person. Crypto being what it is, the funds could not be retrieved.
After the money went missing, the pal told police, “[Ellis] asked me to start getting him some money through selling drugs, shoes or in any way possible. He requested $3,000 to $4,000 a week.” It is unclear what, if any, action was taken by authorities.
It seems that Ellis was spending his money — converted from cryptocurrency to cash — to live a high life. As per a JetSmarter order form provided to The Post by a source who asked not to be named, Pinsky maintained an account with the private-air service. Additionally, according to the insider, he drove an Audi R8, scored great Rangers hockey seats and dressed in splashy Louis Vuitton and Supreme streetwear.
How a kid explains such conspicuous consumption to his parents remains something of a mystery. Said the insider: “I think he told his parents that he made Bitcoin online through video games and got lucky.”
The complaint maintains, “Whether [Ellis’] parents were recklessly negligent or worse in failing to monitor and control their wayward son remains to be seen.”
Ellis’ fly style helped the teen fit in when carousing with fellow hacker Truglia. A photo viewed by The Post shows Ellis at the nightclub Up & Down, brandishing an open bottle of Dom Pérignon while flanked by slinky young women. Still, the insider said, “He showed little interest in being at the club. After posing for pictures with bottles, he’d go outside.”
Even while he was spending, the insider added, Ellis kept an eye on his money.
“He had a designer wallet packed with $100 bills but he never liked to pay for anything,” the insider said. “He was an extreme miser. He anticipated retiring from crime after the Terpin heist.”
Apparently, he didn’t anticipate getting busted by his alleged victim. After Truglia’s 2019 arrest, Ellis allegedly texted a mutual friend: “[Truglia] is a dumbass . . . and got caught.”
Things appear to have unraveled for Ellis during an investigation of the missing crypto. As Terpin attorney O’Donnell listened to recordings between collaborators in the crime, the teen’s name came up as a key participant. O’Donnell told The Post that he contacted Ellis’ mother at her office, and a lawyer returned the attorney’s call. Although Ellis did not admit to anything, he allegedly took unusual action.
Soon after, according to the complaint, “Pinsky . . . sent cryptocurrency, cash and a watch to [Terpin] without any condition . . . There was no other reason to repatriate these items — worth nearly $2 million at the time — other than to make a partial repayment of what he had stolen from Terpin.”
According to O’Donnell, among the items was a “Patek Philippe Nautilus [watch], worth over $100,000.”
As the civil suit hangs — O’Donnell and Terpin anticipate a response from Ellis’ attorney within the next 60 days or so — no criminal charges have been filed against the teen.
“I want to know why [prosecutors] have not indicted this kid,” said O’Donnell. “He is caught dead to rights.”
A Department of Justice spokesman would only say that “Ellis Pinsky has not been charged by this office.”
Terpin admitted to The Post that he waited until Ellis’ 18th birthday earlier this year to file suit against the teen as an adult. That way, Terpin said, “It will be easier to sue him [than it would be if he was a minor] and we’re intending to get treble damages” — repayment of three times the sum stolen. “These are crypto gangsters. My nickname . . . for [Ellis] is Baby Al Capone.’”
Ellis, apparently, is still living at his mother’s Irvington home, as a Post photographer spotted him there last week.
“Look at Ellis’ life and there is no reason for him to do what he did,” the insider said. “He’s a standout kid with a dark side.”