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Security

AT&T sales reps accused of scheming to unlock phones

A lawsuit alleges the former employees put malicious software on work computers so they could help untether discounted phones from AT&T contracts.


Sales reps at AT&T allegedly earned thousands of dollars unlocking phones illegally. CNET/Marguerite Reardon

A Southern California company and former cell phone salespeople have been sued by AT&T Mobility for allegedly helping unlock thousands of cell phones so the devices could work on any wireless network.

The individuals who had worked for AT&T Mobility, all from cities outside Seattle, allegedly snuck malicious software onto work computers that made automated requests to unlock the phones so they could be used without an AT&T contract. The scheme, if proved, may have sought to tap into a resale market for cheap, unlocked phones.

"Illicit bulk unlock schemes are not uncommon," lawyers for Atlanta-based AT&T Mobility wrote in the lawsuit complaint, which was filed in a Seattle federal court earlier in September and first reported by GeekWire on Friday. "Defendants here engaged in just such a scheme."

AT&T spokesman Marty Richter told CNET that the company is seeking damages and injunctive relief and that the alleged scheme "did not involve any improper access of customer information, or any adverse effect on our customers."

The lawsuit names SwiftUnlocks, a company the AT&T Mobility salespeople were allegedly helping. The Anaheim, California, company unlocks a variety of phones for a fee, the lawsuit claims. A website offering just such a service under the name SwiftUnlocks can be found with a quick Google search. An email and phone call to the company requesting comment were not returned.

It couldn't immediately be determined who represents the individuals named in the suit.

The lawsuit tells a tale of salespeople profiting off an illegal scheme but failing to cover their tracks. The individuals allegedly each earned between $10,000 and $20,000 from Swift Unlocks before being caught. The employees left a breadcrumb trail showing they'd unlocked many phones in "milliseconds," which tipped off their bosses and prompted an investigation, according to the lawsuit.

The suit avoids mention of criminal fraud, but one of the laws it cites is primarily a criminal statute. Whether or not the defendants eventually face arrest, the lawsuit could be expensive for them. The damages will include any lost profits as well as however much the salespeople earned for participating in the scheme, plus interest.

Update, September 19 at 10:57 a.m. PT: Adds comment from AT&T.