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Kieu Thoan Thu 15:19, 2024/07/07
The cybersecurity specialist opts to work as much as possible for the community amid multiple jobs offered by big multinationals.

 

“I expect to make as much effort as I can to protect Vietnamese people online.”

Ngo Minh Hieu, aka HieuPC, 35, shared such an idea with The Hanoi Times in a recent talk after a long time of waiting for an appointment due to his packed schedule of international conferences and lectures across the country, to share his expertise on cybersecurity and inspire young people with his own story.

In the talk, I was impressed with the sincerity and energy of the talented Vietnamese cybersecurity specialist for his dedicated future plans, and above all, an extraordinarily inspiring journey with a positive impact on the cybersecurity field.

Became an IT expert with excellent computer skills since he was a teenager. At the age of 13-14, he mastered IT proficiency from the Internet without any training course. For years, he ran a website (hieupc.com), providing network knowledge, and also was an administrator of several underground forums that gathered thousands of users just for knowledge sharing.

 

When he first entered the world of hacking, Hieu did it for free, for fun, and out of curiosity. “My sole purpose in hacking is to obtain data, accounts, credit card information, and share it with friends. I don’t care whatever they do with those data. I was too young to know that what I was doing at the time was against the law. I hacked for fun for the thrill of breaking into the systems and finding something fascinating.”

During that period, he also penned four books – published in 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2012 – to provide free advice and tips on IT.

Hacking for money began when a friend showed him how to use his knowledge to get information to trade for money. “From then on, I started to deal with money, mostly in my first year of high school. By the time I finished the 10th grade, I had fallen victim to the evil practice of using credit card numbers to make purchases and hacking bank account information to sell for money.”

“I went from hacking for fun to hacking for profits when I saw how easy it was to make money stealing customer databases.”

 

He continued hacking to raise money for overseas study. Even after studying at Unitec Institute of Technology, the largest institute of technology in Auckland, New Zealand, he kept hacking several of the institute’s websites. As a result, his visa renewal was denied and he wasn't able to finish his degree.

Hacking just for free, out of curiosity, or even earning millions of dollars from illegal transactions, Hieu was totally unaware of the seriousness of his actions until he was arrested and placed in US detention centers at the age of 24.

The initial 40-year sentence handed down by the US Federal Court left him facing an uncertain future. Later, he accepted the official 13-year sentence and tried his best each day to make himself better and help the US officials as much as possible to detect cybercrime. Therefore, his sentence was commuted, and after serving seven years in correctional facilities, Hieu was released out of his expectations on November 20, 2019.

 

Shortly after returning to Vietnam (in August 2020) from the US Department of Corrections, Ngo Minh Hieu joined the National Cyber Security Center of Vietnam (NCSC). He turned down job offers from large multinational corporations to dedicate himself to helping Vietnam become stronger in cybersecurity and to protect Vietnamese people from cyber threats.

“I feel that the work I have been doing to support individuals and organizations worldwide is of significance, more than other accolades,” the talented cybersecurity specialist shared.

 

Less than two weeks after taking up his new mission, Hieu destroyed two fraudulent websites that resemble Vietnam’s two main airlines' official booking pages (the national flag carrier Vietnam Airlines and Vietjet Air) and dozens of others impersonating him.

Hieu frequently participates in campaigns against various forms of scams, offering guidance and warnings to users. He keeps an eye on information fraud and data trading in hacker forums and shares his expertise with academic institutions.

The Vietnamese media often refer to Hieu as a security engineer, information security expert, or network security engineer in addition to calling him a “former hacker.”

Numerous network operators and technology companies regularly recognize him for his efforts in identifying and resolving security vulnerabilities. In April 2021, he obtained the Offensive Security Web Expert (OSWE) Certification which provides a clear and practical understanding of white box web application assessment and security.

In May 2022, he was recognized by Apple Inc. as one of the security specialists who helped this business identify security vulnerabilities in its web server. He has never before received recognition as a “white hat hacker.”

Verizon, a US-based network, thanked him in February 2023 for identifying two potential data-impacting vulnerabilities and two web management system errors.

He is also a member of the Information Security Committee of the Vietnam Blockchain Association established in May 2022 and head of the Chaintracer Anti-Fraud project, one of the association’s four main programs.

Hieu also takes part in Scamadviser, a Netherlands-based global anti-fraud organization helping over 4.5 million consumers every month to determine whether a website is legitimate or a scam, giving him the opportunity to share his knowledge on stopping cybercrime globally. He also joined Google’s VirusTotal group in an effort to spread knowledge about network security and fraud prevention.

Most recently, Hieu PC became a member of the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG), a worldwide coalition unifying the global response to cybercrime across industry, government, and law enforcement. By joining this organization, he can advance anti-fraud efforts worldwide as the data from the “Chong Lua Dao” project he founded serves to safeguard millions of users worldwide.

 

As for Chong Lua Dao or Scam Fighter, it’s one of the most significant community projects he is contributing to. It’s a cybersecurity non-profit founded on December 27, 2022 and hosted on chongluadao.vn to warn users about websites with harmful content and fake or malicious code to raise security awareness of Vietnamese people in cyberspace and alert them about unsafe websites. One day after the launch, Chong Lua Dao has more than 3,500 downloads, more than 70 thousand hits, and received support from users.

With the number of cyber victims on the rise, Hieu warned: “Romance scams are one of the hardest things to avoid. It’s emotional manipulation.”

 

Hieu never hides his past and describes his experiences behind bars as life-changing lessons, both good and bad for a person's life. But he views them as valuable to renew himself.

He names himself a “convicted hacker and former cybercriminal, threat hunter at NCSC Vietnam, ex-con hacker of US Federal Prison, and ‘Hope for a new opportunity’ in the future.”

Now would be a good time to travel back in time and reminisce about his days as a black hat hacker who gave the FBI secret agents all sorts of headaches.

The US Federal conviction was attributed to Hieu’s holding computer hostage to steal Social Security numbers (SSN) of roughly 200 million Americans and trading several million to buyers in various countries.

That was around 2010-2013 when he earned hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. “With plenty of money, I enjoyed myself, traveled around, stayed in five-star hotels, and bought luxury cars like BMW and Lexus.”

In 2013, US Secret Service agents kept an eye on all of Hieu’s online transgressions and apprehended one of his friends in England. That man confessed that Hieu was his accomplice. They then set up a trap to lure Hieu to Guam and arrested him at the airport on February 7, 2013, as soon as he set foot on the island.

It took me two years to manage to survive in completely new circumstances with an uncertain future until the US Federal Court announced a 13-year-old imprisonment for me in 2015. Between 2013 and 2015, I went from heaven to hell as I struggled with mental depression, lack of family contact, poor English, bad taste, and restless sleep. Feeling low and humiliated, I considered taking my own life.

 

“It was really difficult to accept the way things were!”

Fortunately, Mrs. Minnett Induisi, a 75-year-old prison teacher, was there at the time. She thought of me as her adopted grandchild and supported me in getting over difficulties and moving on.

“No matter how bad your day gets or how many times you fail, the most crucial thing is to learn how to get back up, put your clothes back on, keep going, and never give up,” such Mrs. Minnett Induisi’s advice for Hieu has been with him for years.

 

“At the place of confinement, I developed a keen awareness of how my actions affected society. The acknowledgment kept me awake to my past from a young age to mature and do good deeds to make up for my transgressions.”

 

I got straight to work on all of the tasks I was assigned, paying close attention to even the smallest details for my day which started at 5 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m.

I spent nine months in a tough training environment akin to that of the army but it was a great time.

Once I had regained my composure, I realized that I needed to transform myself. I dove headfirst into studying everything I could about psychology, computers, self-improvement, survival skills, the Bible, yoga, ethics, parenting, among others.

Not only did I change who I was but also helped change some others after they heard my story and experienced firsthand what I went through at the Department of Corrections. These pals are Americans of all races and colors, including those involved in violent crimes like drug trafficking and murder.

Then there were also sessions where I told everyone my story. It’s preferable to assist those in comparable circumstances as they gain a better understanding of me. Instead of letting me stay for the three-month training program, they ended up extending it to nine months so that I could inspire the people around me.

At the same time, I helped US Secret Service agents track down more than 20 cybercriminals when they asked me to use my expertise for cyber investigations.

 

I was impressed by the way Ngo Minh Hieu thinks about life: simple but deep. It seems to me that he has a deep-seated desire to use all of his knowledge and skills to support others and make a positive impact on their lives.

It served as a means for him to make amends for past transgressions and pay off the debts of life.

“It is time for me to give back to society with love: To know more about my past life as a cybercriminal,” Hieu revealed.

 

“I now know that money is just a part of life. It’s not everything and it can’t bring you true happiness. I hope those cybercriminals out there can learn from my experience. I hope they stop what they are doing and instead use their skills to help make the world a better place.”

The black hat began a new chapter of his life by making efforts to benefit others and have a constructive impact on life.

The Vietnam Talents Awards 2023 is the recognition for Hieu and his 30-member team for their tireless efforts in protecting users in cyberspace.

He has released the e-book “Hacking Credit Card Version 4” – a special version titled “HieuPC Returns.”

 

Meanwhile, he continues to attend international conferences on cybersecurity. In 2024, he joined GISEC GLOBAL – the world’s largest cybersecurity exhibition held annually in Dubai for the second time.

 

Interestingly, at the live hacking “Epic web exploitation leading to cloud storage account takeover” session on April 23 at Dubai World Trade Center, Hieu presented together with Matt O’Neill, a former US Secret Service agent who was instrumental in exposing his past misdeeds. Together they discussed his journey focusing on the handling of personally identifiable information (PII). Commenting on their surprise encounter, Hieu exclaimed: “I never thought in a million years I would be able to stand on stage with…”

As well as a range of programs, Hieu and his team are working tirelessly to expand the Chong Lua Dao project and have more Internet users protected. He travels to all parts of Vietnam to share about cybersecurity with people of all ages and groups.

Commenting on Hieu, US agent O’Neill exclaimed: “I don’t know of any other cybercriminal who has caused more material financial harm to more Americans than Ngo.”

Anthony Le, Senior Software Engineer, at General Motors, who worked with Hieu on the same team, said: “I have the utmost respect and admiration for Hieu Ngo as a cybersecurity professional. His remarkable journey, transitioning from a former convicted hacker to a passionate advocate for online security, is nothing short of inspiring.”

With deep insights into the hacker mindset, he adeptly shares knowledge and empowers individuals to fortify their digital presence. His transformation serves as a compelling testament to the potential for redemption and the significance of fostering vigilant cybersecurity practices, Anthony Le emphasized.

Jorij Abraham, Managing Director at Global Anti-Scam Alliance & ScamAdviser, said Hieu is helping them keep their sites secure with advice, both asked and unasked, which they greatly appreciate.

Khiem Bui, who worked with Hieu on the same team, said Hieu was knowledgeable, ambitious, and articulate.

Meanwhile, Thanh Nguyen Le, IT Manager at Rieker Vietnam Ltd., gave a short comment: “One of the best security guys in the world that I know.”

Hieu also plans to soon publish his autobiography in which he would give a vivid description of his experiences and life of an offender who was a notorious hacker in the US detention centers. “The book will cover things that I have never disclosed, including unbelievable stories about the life of a notorious hacker incarcerated in the US.”

“I hope that by sharing my thoughts about cybersecurity, my mistakes, and redemption with young people who are passionate about technology, I can help prevent them from getting lost like I did.”

 

Throughout our conversation, he talked a lot about hope because it got him through some of his lowest points. Now it is hope and the joy of dedication that will enable him to pursue his plans, spreading positive energy to millions of people, especially the young.

With a quick farewell to me, Hieu hurriedly boarded the flight from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City to deliver talks to students and youth. This gifted cybersecurity specialist works on public projects to make cyberspace safer for people everywhere, not just in Vietnam.

Now Ngo Minh Hieu desires more time than a 24-hour day to carry out his future plans, all of which are community-focused. That is a selfless quality that not many people possess, especially for a hacker of this caliber, an exceptional talent in the Vietnamese IT sector.

 
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