Brett Johnson – How I Unbecame The FBI’s Most Wanted Cyber Criminal: Part 1 (370)

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Brett Johnson is a former US most wanted cyber criminal turned good guy. The United States Secret Service called Brett “The Original Internet Godfather.” Brett’s rollercoaster of a story is one you don’t want to miss as you’ll hear about his role in refining modern financial cybercrime, being convicted of 39 felonies, escaping prison, and how he built the first organized cyber crime community. This community called “Shadow Crew” laid the way for modern cybercrime channels today. 

Brett was sentenced to 90 months in prison, but that isn’t where his story ended. After a life of crime, Brett finally took responsibility for where his life had ended up, and found redemption with the FBI. This was a chance to turn his life around and use his past for good, and so he took it. Today, Brett is considered one of the leading authorities on cyber crime, identity theft, and cyber security. Now, he works hard to protect others from the type of person he used to be.

This episode is part 1 of 2 with Brett Johnson, so make sure to tune in next week for the second half of this fascinating conversation. In part 1 you will hear what it’s like to grow up with a mom that’s a fraudster, how he learned to steal at age 10, and meeting the first decent person at age 16. Brett’s insight on what makes cybercrime easy for criminals, what cyber criminals look for, and why cyber crimes go unreported. 

Key highlights:

  • Brett’s childhood of abuse, and what he learned from his parents that influenced him throughout his life
  • The first crime Brett ever committed as a child 
  • The Eastern Kentucky mentality
  • How being a “social engineer” benefitted Brett as a criminal
  • How Brett met the first decent human being in his life
  • How Brett lost a full scholarship for acting
  • How he got into internet crime
  • The first lesson cyber criminals learn
  • How trust is established online
  • What predators look for online
  • What needs to happen for cybercrime to be successful?

Connect with Brett Johnson:


LinkedIn: Brett Johnson

Podcast: The Brett Johnson Show

Cybercrime 101 Blog

Check out the video version of this episode below:

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Episode transcript below:


Brett Johnson, Mike Malatesta



Mike Malatesta  00:00

Hi everyone, Mike Malatesta here and welcome back to the HOW’D IT HAPPEN podcast. On this podcast, I dig in deep with every guest to explore the roots of their success to discover not just how it happened but why it matters. My mission is to find and share stories that inspire, activate and maximize the greatness in you. Today’s episode of The How did happen podcast is part one, with Brett Johnson, the godfather of internet crime, because this was such a fascinating conversation and went longer than most. We’re sharing it with you in two parts. And you won’t want to miss either. In part one. We talked about what it’s like to grow up with a mom who’s a fraudster and maybe sociopath to how Brett learned to steal food with his younger sister before he was 10 years old and meeting the first decent human being in his life at age 16


Brett Johnson  00:49

cybercrime in order for cybercrime to be successful, three things have to take place, you have to gather data, you have to commit a crime. And then finally, you have to cash that crime out. All three things have to work in conjunction if they don’t, the crime fails.


Mike Malatesta  01:04

There’s a ton here and this is an awesome and wide ranging conversation. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Hey, Brett, Welcome to the How to happen podcast.


Brett Johnson  01:20

Thank you for bringing me on. I appreciate it.


Mike Malatesta  01:22

I have been so excited to talk to you. I’ve so couple things with Brett and I first heard about I first heard Brett on the James Altucher podcast, which is something I listened to all the time. And I was struck by so many things that he had to say on that his life. It’s not just his life experiences, which are we’re going to learn all about, but so many unique, I’d say unique things that he had to say on there that I was like, How do I get a hold of this guy? So I went path of least resistance. I went to LinkedIn and sent him a note and he didn’t respond to my note. You know what he did? He called Brett, you’re the only person I’ve ever sent an intro on LinkedIn. And I do sometimes put my phone number if I really want to connect with somebody there. You’re the only person who’s ever called me so well see I like to be unique. Yeah. Well, that says something about you because no one’s ever done that and I thought holy crap. That’s awesome. So a Kudo for for you another Kudo for you. Thank you. Thanks. So listen, I’m gonna tell you a little bit more about Brett so you can be as excited for this episode as I am. So Brett Johnson is former US Most Wanted cyber criminal. Now he is a good guy that’s self described good guy. And I think you’ll see why that moniker fits him so well. United States you could serve as called Brett, the original Internet godfather for his role in refining modern financial cybercrime. Or to put it another way, Brett was convicted of 39 felonies placed on the US most wanted list, escape from prison. And he built the first organized cybercrime community called Shadow crew. And a lot of you probably have never heard of shadow crew but we’re gonna find out what you got to cruise and and how it was the precursor to a lot of the dark web ish things that you hear about today. So Brad Red was sentenced to 90 months in federal prison and you think that might be the end of the story, but Not hardly. He found redemption through his sister, his wife, Michelle, and finally the FBI, he was given the chance to turn his life around, and he took it today. Brad is considered one of the leading authorities on cybercrime, identity theft and cybersecurity on the planet. He works hard to protect businesses and consumers from the type of person he used to be. And he takes his job very seriously. He has been featured on or in Netflix, Hulu, Megyn, Kelly, Lex Friedman, concrete wired, New York Times, CNN, Fox News, and then every other outlet there is I think, Brett, and he’s worked with groups like the FBI, Microsoft capital, one American Express, TransUnion visa, some of the biggest names that you’ve heard of, and a bunch of others. He hosts a podcast called The Bret Johnson Show if you’re watching the video of this, you can see his podcast art behind him. And you can find out all about Brett at his website, which is www dot angler, fish p So I asked everyone the same simple question to get started and that is how did it happen for you?


Brett Johnson  04:31

You got that loaded question right at the right at the get go, don’t you? Let’s see where it goes. How did it happen for me? A long line of bad choices that that boat that I think that is probably the best response just a long line of bad choices not just by me but the adults that were around me when I was a child thing is is I’m That’s it? That’s a damn good question that you ask. There really isn’t and you told me before I came on the show you were gonna ask the question. I didn’t put a thought into it because I didn’t want to I don’t want to prepare anything, I guess choices, those bad choices kind of kind of define who I was. And then ultimately who I became, you know, I’m, I’m from Eastern Kentucky and my mom was a fraudster. And when I say she was a fraudster, I mean, she was a fraudster. This is a woman who she steals a bulldozer at one point she she takes a slip and fall and convenience store she used to go to the, to the drugstore, and she’d buy empty capsules, and then she’d buy diet pills and, and take the innards out of those diet pills and put in the empty capsules and sell it as speed to people. That was my mom and she was she is not was she is an abusive person. She Oh, my God, man. She the things that this woman did us as as children. I remember my first memory. And I don’t talk about this much my first memory. I’ve got two. The first one is my dad was a helicopter pilot, a captain in the military. And my mom was just an LPN nurse. But we were in Fort Lewis Washington. I was Jesus was 7074 75. So I would have been four or five My Sister Denise would have been a year younger. They were driving on base and me and Denise were in the backseat my dad was driving my mom was in the passenger seat. My mom was screaming at my dad just and this was common, you know, I wish I hope you die. I don’t know why married, you know, stuff like that. And my dad was always the calm person. You know, Carolyn, Sue, what’s wrong? What did I do? What? Please stop, please stop, you know, just like that. Just a very calm man overall. And I remember my mom. She lunged across the car, grabbed the steering wheel looked. I don’t know if you I guess you did look at but she grabbed the steering wheel. I remember screaming, are you ready to die, you son of a bitch and tried to steer us into traffic. And as the first memory I’ve got the first real solid memory. The other memory that I thought was a fake memory was my mom had a had a woman tied up in the front yard to a tree and she was beating her. And for years and I mean, I was in my 40s before I found out that that was not a fake memory that was that really happened. Those are the two earliest memories, I’ve gotten my life and those are the that’s that’s who my mom is, you know, she was a person that always everything around me and everything around the people that I that I’ve ever associated with. It seems like everything is kind of love kind of revolves around at all like my mom would always test people can I do this to you, and you’ll still love me. My dad was always scared of the people that he loved leaving me I’ve always been the guy that’s that’s looking for love in all the wrong places. You know, that’s, that’s, that’s so it’s like love revolves around everything. And when I said choices at the beginning, you know, I look at I look at my my parents when I grew up. So my mom was the person who she chose to cheat on my father she chose to abuse me and my sister and and when I say abuse, I mean that those two instances I just told you about that’s just that’s just, you know, the top of the cake, you know, as all that is, but she chose to do that she chose to constantly test people she chose not to work, always to commit crime, everything else. My father chose to let my mom abuse everyone in the family. And he never really put a stop to it. He became the enabler he made those choices. The first crime I committed or not, and you people who’ve heard me talk before I’ve heard heard me tell the story. The first crime I committed my dad. My mom leaves my dad and the way my mom left my dad, my great grandfather had died. We were in Panama City City, Florida. My great grandfather had died. And my mom tells my dad and me and today so I was 10 my sister Denise was nine. She was like, Oh yeah, I want to go and we’re going to go to the funeral. I’m going to take the kids to the funeral up in eastern Kentucky. That’s the last time I saw my dad four G’s. For years. I didn’t know. I was 10. I didn’t have a conversation with the man for another 20 years after that. And nobody knew that she was leaving my dad except for her. So she packed all of her clothes, didn’t pack any of our clothes. We ended up moving into an apartment that my grandfather had built the underneath of his main house. And that was a nightmare. She she used to go out and party for days at a time she’d leave me and Denise at the house like when I was 10 Denise was nine. My grandparents upstairs. They didn’t want to feed us they that my granddad. He was he was kind of nuts. Kinda he was nuts. But he he would allow you you to take a bath once a week, and the amount of water that you were allowed to put in the bathtub was an inch of water. That’s what you were allowed to have. And he would come in and check on you to make sure you hadn’t hadn’t used any more water than that. So that was it. So the way my crimes began, is mom had been gone for a few days. And I’m the kid that you know, I get the criminal mindset from my mom, my dad, I get that that fear of the loved ones leaving me so mom had always told me and my sister, you know, hey, I gave up my life for you. I’m gonna leave and not come back one of these days, you’re gonna find me in a ditch dead someplace. This is what my mom would say all the time. So I was the kid that when she would leave, I was always worried that by God, she’s not going to come back, you know, we’re going to find her dad’s house. So I was always worried about that. And I’d post up at the window, I’d constantly be checking outside stuff like that to see if she’s coming home. Denise was nine years old, this child was nine years old. And the only thing Denise was was angry all the damn time. And even to this day, my sister is a great person. But even to this day, my sister has a lot of anger issues. So my mom had been gone for a few days. We didn’t have any food in that apartment whatsoever. Denise comes in one day at nine years old, and she’s got this pack of pork chops in her hand. And I’m like, where did you get that? And she tells me she’s still she’s stolen it. And I’m like, No, I show me how you’ve done that. So she takes me over as she shows me how she’s stuffing food down her pants and said you got to eat, though we start stealing food. And we get to the point where we’re wanting to sandwich and the thing is, is you can’t stuffed bread down your pants. So there was a Kmart across the way. I looked at lace, I was like, let me see what I can do. And I walked in and got a hoodie off the rack or zip up hoodie, took the tags off of it, put it on, wore it out and got outside with it. And the way that you steal bread is you throw the hoodie over your shoulder, you stuffed the bread down one of the sleeves, that you put the hoodie over your shoulder and you just walk right out with it. And so that started our little shoplifting escapades and we hit Kmart for you know, books, games, jewelry, even music, all that stuff. mom comes home and sees all the stuff we’ve stolen. And she’s like, where did you find that? You know, 10 years old, you can’t really make sense of things at 10 years old. I told my mom we found it. She’s like, you didn’t find that Denise stands up angry as ever. We stole it. My mom looks at my sister and show me how you did that. And she starts running me and Denise has little shoplifters and goes and gets her mom to join us as well. And we used to take these road trips, and either me and Denise would steal things that she wanted us to steal or we’d do the distraction. You know who’s going to Yeah, there’s no way adults would steal anything with kids around. Yeah, well. And so that’s that’s how my crimes begin. And I’m adamant. And I really do mean this. You know, when you’re a child, you can’t help what the adults around you’re doing, you’re going to do what they’re doing. Alright. When I became an adult, I chose to commit crime. So I don’t I don’t blame my childhood. On my choices or my crimes. When I became an adult, when I became an adult, that’s all me, I had opportunities. I did I had, I had the ability, I’m not an idiot, I had the ability to to lead a legal life, I just chose not to my sister, for example, she had the exact same upbringing that I did. And she goes up to other than that one shoplifted experience. She doesn’t break the law anymore. She’s got anger issues, but she grows up to be a good parent, a teacher, a really good person overall. And I’m the guy that just kept going, I gotta tell you, there’s this there’s this thing I call the Eastern Kentucky mentality. And I don’t think it’s just, you know, centralized in eastern Kentucky. But in Eastern Kentucky, when you’re raised in that environment, you believe by God, it’s the man’s job to provide. You know, the man, it’s the man’s job do this. It’s managed to do that. And I guess a lot of not, I guess I know that I have, you know, got that in me. So with Denise, I think one of the reasons that she was able to avoid some of the things that I was doing was that she was not a male. She was a female, and I was expected to step up and do this stuff. And I did. So as I was growing up, I got involved in every type of scam and fraud that not only my mom, but every single member on that side of the family was committed. So I grew up knowing how to do insurance fraud, faking accidents, burning homes, faking stolen cars, charity, fraud, forging documents, trafficking, drugs, growing drugs, illegally strip mining, coal. I mean, I grew up knowing how to do every single aspect of that. And at the same time, I grew up being a really good, I mean, a really good social engineer. Because as a child, because of that environment, I had to know what the adults in my circle were thinking, and I had to be able to navigate and survive that. So that’s one of the tools I acquired as a child was being a social engineer. I’ve been able to read people quickly, and being able to know what their triggers are, and trying to manipulate people pool. And it was because of the adults in my circle. It was also because of the crimes that I was involved in. That was my childhood, I branched off. And I said that, I said that I had had opportunities. And I did. I’m a, I’m an extremely good actor, stage actor. And coming out high school, I met my first, my first really decent human being when I was 16. And before I get to that, I just want people you know, I talked about the abuse, it got so bad, I got to the point where I would catch my mom and dad gone. And I would urinate on the floor. Now we had dogs. So they would think it was the dog it was doing that. I didn’t talk about that until in my 40s until I had gotten out of prison, and I was on stage. And I told myself, I’ve made a deal with myself. And anytime I was speaking that I was going to try to find out something new about myself to try to try to become better. And when you say


Mike Malatesta  15:55

when you say something new about yourself, you mean go somewhere where you haven’t gone? Yeah,


Brett Johnson  16:00

yeah, I was always want to the first the first few times I spoke. And I I’m a career speaker now. Yes. So I’m a public speaker, Keynote and everything else. But the first few times I spoke, you know, I was like, I was keeping things hidden. They’re not getting things out. And about the fourth time on stage, before I got on stage, I was like, you know, you’re going to be doing this shit for the rest of your life. If you go to do it, be truthful, not only to them, but to yourself and try to find out something new about you every single time that you talk to people. So I got up there and I started to talk about and it just came out, it just started pouring out about you know, when I was when I was a child, it got to the point where I would just urinate on the floor. And I didn’t know. And even when I was saying I didn’t know why I had done that. And the interesting thing is, is after I said that, this woman comes up to me after the presentation. And she was a fraud analyst. But she tells me that before she became a fraud analyst that she used to work with abused children. And that that was normal, that it got with with a lot of children that got to be the only form of control that they had was that they could control when they use the bathroom.


Mike Malatesta  17:13

That’s when, when, when and where.


Brett Johnson  17:16

Yeah, when and where. Okay. Nobody can tell you where to do it. You can. So that’s that’s the only form of control you’ve got left after a while. Is that, so that that happened? And then then it got to the point where, you know, my mom leaves my dad. And I was 15. My dad, he I used to call my dad all the time he would. And he was in Panama City, Florida, manatees were in Hazard Kentucky, I was under the impression that I was going to be living with my dad. And I called him one Sunday. And he tells me he’s got he was he had gotten married or who’s getting ready to get married. And anyway, I was not going down there to live with it. You know, that was over. And I don’t I don’t remember a whole lot. But I know that I went to I used to go out to the payphones at the hospital to call the man. And so I got off the phone, I walked into an elevator and a woman walked in the elevator with me. And she looked very similar to my mom. And I assaulted the lady. I ended up beating the lady up. And


Mike Malatesta  18:20

it was brutal. It was brutal. And that was because she reminded you of


Brett Johnson  18:25

and here’s the thing now now, I want you to know that I can. I can rationalize. I’m 53 right now. And I can rationalize why that happened. Okay, I know why. You know, psychologically why that happened? All right. But I gotta tell you, that doesn’t matter a damn thing. It doesn’t it doesn’t matter damn thing. I, at the end of the day, I did that. And I have. It took me again, it took me to where I was in my 40s Before I could really even talk about that. I still it’s every day I think about that. You know, this is what I did. Yeah, I can I can talk about it being a product of abuse and everything else but it doesn’t matter. To me. It doesn’t matter. I still did that. I didn’t. That was when I was 15 I served. I served six months in a county jail in solitary in a county jail. 15. Finally the Go To Court judge finds me guilty of assault he gives me he sentences me to a psychological evaluation. So I spent six weeks at a mental hospital in Louisville, Kentucky and they cut me loose and I was supposed to go to to counseling. But the thing is, is that you’re in Eastern Kentucky back then you didn’t have counseling. So there was no counseling. I ended up having to switch schools a few times. Because it’s a small area and everyone knew what what you’d done. When I was 1616 or 17. I met my first really decent human being. I had in the county there were three schools. I went to the first school and the children wouldn’t let me at the door. That was a high school the children wouldn’t Not let me in the door. They they stopped me the teachers didn’t know they told me and my mom, you’re not welcome here.


Mike Malatesta  20:06

Because they knew about this. Yeah, it’s Yeah. Then I


Brett Johnson  20:09

went to the second school. And the principal told my mom that my sister was welcome to attend. But that I wasn’t. And my mom was raising hell about that. I told my mom, I was like, Look, just take me to this. This other school was way the hell out of the country. And I was like, just take me to this other school, I’ll be fine. Just take me over there. So she agreed to do that. And that other school was its name was adult combs. And they accept me, kind of with open arms. They didn’t didn’t hesitate to take me in at all. They knew who I was. But that first day I walked in, I walked into my to my homeroom, and I handed the teacher Their name was Carol combs. I handed to the teacher. They’re my school, you know, my class schedule. And she tells me today, she said, I heard that voice that you’ve got. And I knew that you were destined for something. She wanted me to be into Drama and Theatre and drama. And I told her no, I wanted it to be in academics. So the deal was, is that I could I could participate in academics, as long as I also participated in theater, so she was the first decent person I met my life and she became kind of like a foster mom to me. While I was in those final two years of high school, and I excelled I really did I became head of the academic team I head of the the mock trial department, I was one of the top students in the state i won for for the state I won Best actor and actress in the state first part, I think the only person ever do that in the state of Kentucky. But we got out of college and had scholarships and just a lot of opportunity. It’s what I said earlier, you know, I had opportunities. But at the same time I found a girlfriend that said that those poor choices, you know, all boils down choices, those poor choices. I chose the relationship with this girl over taking one of those scholarships. So I went to community college. The plan was to go there, you know, two years and then transfer out and while while I was at a community college community college there hired a fairly well known theatre director. And he put on a play that was written by the head of the theatre department at San Jose State, a guy by the name of Edward F. Emanuel. His claim to fame was he wrote the movie three niches. So Edward agreed to fly into hazard Kentucky to see his play. And Edwards watching the show. And the show was called a house divided. And I played like 30 different characters in the show. And he watches the show. Soon as the show’s over. He looks at me, he’s like, I’ll give you a full ride scholarship. If you want to come to San Jose State and get in theater and I looked at my site, let’s do that. He’s like, I’ll be back in two weeks. So he leaves a couple of weeks later, I’m he flies then a couple of weeks later, I’m outside shooting basketball with some friends of mine. He pulls up and I walk over to his car and I’m like, hey, I’ll walk in and introduce you to my mom. He’s like, No, man, I got it. I’m like, okay, so I keep shooting ball. He walks into where, where my mom is. And he’s in there about 15 minutes walks out. Why does this she never says a word to me. It gets in the car leaves and I don’t hear from a man again. It took me a few weeks to find out what went on and what went on. As he gets in there. My mom tells me she pulls a knife on him and she tells him you’re not going to steal my son from me. I’ll cut you from gizzard asshole. And that scares the man to death. And I guess that kind of, I guess it kind of broke my Spirit on that. You know, I just I just kind of gave up the I was an adult at that point. I mean, I didn’t have to, but I guess it just just kind of squashed it for me. So I just started doing more fraud and scams and whatnot. I faked a car accident, to get the money to get married to finance that my first girlfriend she broke up with me. She was her. She was a preacher’s daughter. She was an outstanding young lady. And I was not an outstanding young man. And she finally after five years realize that and she broke up with me and then I met this other girl almost immediately and I was married to her within six months after that and financed I financed the marriage by faking a car accident and getting the insurance money moved up to Lexington, Kentucky to go to university. And again, I’m that guy that gets the worst parts from mom and dad from dad that fear of being abandoned. I’ve never been able to show love in some sort of healthy way and ever, ever. Even today. I’ve been married to my wife now for since 2014. And I’ve known her for over a decade. But I’m still learning what it is to be healthy in a relationship. I still have problems still have probably she’ll tell you she loves me to death but she’ll she’ll tell you I still have issues. And can


Mike Malatesta  24:56

I ask you a couple of questions? Sure. Go ahead. Your Mom, did you This in turn, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to do you have Have you ever felt loved by your mom that I


Brett Johnson  25:08

think that’s one of the problems that that I have in relationships. My mom loves me and my sister in her way and in her way means that we’re property. And she always did that. You know you you are my children. You belong to me. And if we ever stepped outside of them, we suffered the consequences. For example, my sister, she she gets a scholarship. We’re both bright children. She gets a scholarship to Berea College, one of the best colleges in the United States. She goes there. It’s a free college, so she didn’t have to pay anything you work your way through. She goes there, my mom finds out that my sister has a boyfriend. And my mom gets in the car drives up to Berea goes into president’s office and proceeds to tell the President that my sister is addicted to drugs, that she’s a prostitute and that her boyfriend is not her boyfriend. But her boyfriends, her pimp all complete lies, just to try to get Denise thrown out of school and almost does, because my mom’s a very good social engineer, too. So she, she almost gets Denise thrown out. And the only thing that saves Denise is a couple of alumni members knew who my mom was. And they were friends of Denise, their daughter was friends with Denise. So they tell the president Hey, this woman’s nuts, the President calls my mom and my mom cracks and starts just cussing him out threatening to kill him everything else. And that’s what saved Denise from being thrown out of school. And that those these types of things were common, you know, feeling loved, that’s a difficult thing to say. Okay, because it’s sometimes it’s hard to define what love is, you know, you know it. I know that it’s unhealthy. Okay. But I think that my mom loves me and my sister in a very, very toxic way, in a very abusive way. This is what I say.


Mike Malatesta  27:01

Okay, fair enough. It reminded me, you know, when you’ve been talking about social engineering, yeah, a couple times, you’re a good social engineer. She’s a good social engineer. I recently read the book called The Sociopath Next Door. And sociopaths are very good social engineers. They can make you feel what they want to make you feel, even though they don’t feel it at all, because they’re incapable of they’re really incapable of love. But they know that to get to get someplace in life, you have to, you have to be able to convince people that you care about them.


Brett Johnson  27:35

I mean, you’re right. And you know, I’ve been, I’ll tell you there was when I first started that, you know, made the choice to turn my life around, and stop breaking the law. There were people I knew, Oh, Pharaoh, he was the head of the identity theft Council. And he was one of the first people that really helped me. And he had, some people would talk to him, and he’s like, Well, now you got to watch out for Brett. He’s a sociopath. And I took exception to that. And I still take exception to that, to a degree of you know, hey, and I do believe this. I think that real sociopaths are very rare. I think that that’s that’s a term that’s that’s bandied about a bit too much. It’s not that I didn’t care about my victims or didn’t know that I was doing wrong. I did. Alright. Is just that Dave, if you look at, I’ve been very fortunate on the legal side of things that I I spent a lot of time thinking and reading and talking to people about this stuff. And on the the acfe, the American Certified Fraud examiner’s Association, they, they have this thing called the creasey fraud triangle that defines what insider fraud is why it happens. And creasey says it’s three things that you have to have pressure that is that that employee has to have pressure coming from someplace, maybe loss of a job, something like that, they have to have opportunity, they have to have the you know, they have to have the ability and the opportunity to commit the crime, but they also have to be able to justify it. They have to be able to convince themselves that hey, what I’m doing is okay, I’m really a good person. And yeah, I don’t think a sociopath does that. And when I was me, I was always the guy that justified every single thing that I did, I said, I did it from my family, from my wife, from my sister from a stripper girlfriend. I remember when I, before I went on the run, I’d been a bit screwed over the Secret Service. But before I went on the road, I talked to a guy named Tom Ziller. He was a writer for the New York Times and he flew down to interview me, I had talked to him for about three or four hours that day. And as I was leaving, I guess he knew I was about to go on the run. He was like, Brett, can I ask you one more question. I was like, yeah, he’s like, why did you do it? And I looked at him I was dead serious. And I was like, I did it all for Elizabeth. And he looked at me as like and his exact words excuse the language but his exact words were God dammit bread at some point, you’ve got to accept responsibility. And I had no clue. I mean, not a clue what that guy was talking about. Because at that point, I believe that I did it all for her. That was the stripper girlfriend. And if it hadn’t been the stripper girlfriend, it would have been I did it all for my family, for my wife for all that. Yeah. So I think the justification really matters when we’re talking about I don’t think a sociopath I don’t think a sociopath and certainly not a psychopath would ever try to justify their crimes. And you know, I spent, I spent seven and a half years in prison. And during that seven and a half, I may have met to real sociopaths or psychopaths. The rest of everybody there, they made bad choices and


Mike Malatesta  30:43

make bad choices. Yeah, she the author in that in that book says that she disagrees a little bit with you. She says that they’re one and 25 people are sociopaths, believe it or not, which seems like a crazy crazy number. So number of people. But as you were, as you were talking about doing it for Elizabeth Elizabeth was her name stripper, right? When sociopaths get caught? It’s that Elizabeth was doing it to them. They become the victim.


Brett Johnson  31:08

No, it’s never the victim. Yeah.


Mike Malatesta  31:11

So I think that’s a clear delineator because you’ve said number of times that you’ve made deliberate choices, and you’re doing I think those kinds of people say no, it wasn’t my choice. It was because of my mom, or it was because of Elizabeth or it was because of the Secret Service or whomever and they they serve insulate themselves in that because they can’t handle the truth.


Brett Johnson  31:33

When I’ve not read the book that you’re talking about. Yeah, I will tell you that. If you ever if you were ever to talk to my mom, you will hear that a lot. Yeah, you know, I’m not the one to blame. They are so that there may be a lot of threes that I’ll have to I’ll have to read through that book. But yeah, that was my upbringing and everything that happened from there and my cybercrimes because I guess that’s the reason I’m able to do what I do today is this whole cybercrime thing. Yeah. faked that car accident to get the money to get married, and I was in Lexington, I was doing this little scams and frauds. And can I can


Mike Malatesta  32:09

before you go, can I ask you, how do you fake How do you fake a car accident and get a claim? Like what? Because I think people are thinking well, how I’m thinking, how would I do that?


Brett Johnson  32:18

Well, you got first you got to realize I’m from Eastern Kentucky. So


Mike Malatesta  32:23

that’s been established. All right. Alright.


Brett Johnson  32:27

You got to realize that because this story is nuts. I had a I had a Chevy. I think it was a sprint. It was a it was a Ford or very small sedan about the size of a Ford Escort at the time. Yeah. All right. And I bought it at a car auction for like $1,000. And I bought it with the idea that I was going to fake that car accident. And what I was going to do, we had had insurance through USAA. And they had this thing where they would pay you lost wages. Well, my aunt owned an LLC. She was a fraudster too. And she was like, hey, what you can do, she said, I did this to what you can do is you can do an accident. You don’t have to go to a real doctor, you can go to a chiropractor, the chiropractor, oh, sign off that you’re injured and everything. USAA will pay you $800 A week for lost wages. And I’m sitting there going $800 a week. This is you know, 94 $800 a week, I can do that. That’ll fight as my marriage. So I tell her, I’m gonna do this. My first cousin Ronnie, he hears that I’m going to do and he comes up to me, he’s like, Hey, man, can I ride with you? And I was like, Yeah, let’s do that. So he’s like, give me a few hours. So what he does is, is during that space of time, he goes to a dentist and has one of his molars pooled so that he can say it was knocked out during cracks. So he comes up, it’s he’s got blood on his shirt, everything else. I’m like, man, what have you friggin done. He’s like, man, he’s like, that’s why I can get paid. He said you ought to do it to this like Dude, I’m not having teeth pulled out. So my mom was living up in the head of a hollow at this point. I was staying with my grandma. She was living up in head of hollow we drove up to visit her all right and this place called bull Creek Kentucky. So we grew drive up to visit her my stepdad does weed never went up there visit he was he was suspicious out of the gate. He was like What the hell’s going on? So we stay there a few hours and the idea was as we were coming back out of the hollow you know, windy mountain road dirt road, we would we would say we lost control. Maybe a car was yes, what we ended up saying a car was coming at us and we veered off to the side of the road and just went over the edge. So here we are, we find a place where we want to dump the car. We go to push it over, and the damn thing doesn’t go like five feet over the edge. So here we are. We’re trying to we ended up getting down there in the in the side of it and rolling it the rest of the way down the hill. Then we cover ourselves with leaves and dirt and mud and everything, climb out, walk out of the hollow, find as a store, call the police and it goes from there. And that was that was what happened. Was that and that finance to my marriage and of course USAA they let it go on for Geez about a year, year and a half until one day I was in I was in Lexington, Kentucky, I was going to university. And I’ve never told this story before. But I was in, I was in like sneak attack. And I stopped going to the to the chiropractor, and I just I started photocopying his little reports, and I would sign his John Henry to have and sentiment USAA. So one morning, I get this knock at the door. And it’s an investigator for USAA. And my my wife, Susan, she didn’t know what the hell I was doing. So he’s like, Can I come in and talk to you. So he lays out all the all the forged reports that I put down, he’s like, I’ve talked to chiropractor, you’ve not been to the chiropractor in eight months. He’s laying it all out. I’m like, okay, and I was like, So what’s going to go on? He’s like, Well, you’re going to sign this paper, you’re going to stop being a member of USAA we’re going to stop paying you and because you’re going to agree to do this. We’re not what to prosecute. And I’m like, sounds like a fair idea to me. So that’s, that’s that was how I got my marriage financed. I got a job. After that. I’d been working at Lexmark and I was doing like 60 hours a week at Lexmark. I’m the guy I’m a bit of a control freak. So I told my wife, you know, I’ll do all the cooking and cleaning and everything else. You just worry about going to school and I couldn’t do it. I had 18 hour class load and everything else. And the job is what gave and I started doing more and more scams and frauds. I got a job at some telemarketing companies so I could go in and steal their phone list and the products that they were selling, got in some trouble over that set up my own charity at one point, a Kiwanis Club in my own name, so I could rip people off on that got in trouble with that sort of like three months and in a county jail for that one. Then when I got out of that is when I went into internet crime. Got a desktop computer didn’t really know how to make money found eBay liked eBay a lot is right when eBay had transitioned from selling Pez dispensers over to the auction stuff. And I was like, man, there’s got to be a way to make money on this and didn’t really know how until I was I used to watch inside edition all the time. And back then Bill O’Reilly was the host. And this one episode, they were profiling Beanie Babies. And they were profiling peanut, the royal blue elephant. Little guy was selling for $1,500 and I was I mean I was naive and I was sitting there going well shit. I’m in Kentucky. A lot of people probably don’t even know that I can probably find a hallmark store. It’s got a peanut in a bin someplace. So I skipped class the next day should start shopping around all the stores takes me about three hours to figure out no idiot. He’s on eBay for $1,500 but they did have these little gray beanie baby ones that looked exactly alike except the color was different. So here I am. I’m like oh by a gray Beanie Baby Elephant for $8 stopped by Kroger on the way home pick up a pack of blue red dye go home try to dive a little guy turns out they’re made out of polyester. They don’t hold dye very well get them out of Bath look like they’ve got the mange. And that story. I ended up ripping a lady off of $1,500 found a picture of a real one online posted it she she thought I had the real thing. She wins the bid. And when she wins the bid is when when that social engineering kicks in. I don’t want to be on the defensive. I want her on the defensive. So I sent her a message. I was like, hey, congratulations, you win the bid. Thank you so much. By the way, we’ve never done any business before I don’t even know if I can trust you. What I need you to do is pick up a postal money order from USPS. It’s issued by the United States government protects you protects me send me that soon as I get it, I’ll cash it out. send you your animal. She believed that she sends me the money orders for 1500 I cashed them send her the animal, get a phone call. I didn’t order this my response lady, you ordered a blue elephant. I sent you a blueish elephant. And the interesting thing is that that one story is kind of a microcosm of really every type of scam or fraud that you encounter online. The first lesson I learned from that is hey, if you delay a victim long enough, a lot of them get so exasperated, they throw their hands in the air walk away, you don’t hear from them again. And they don’t complain to law enforcement. And that is still one of the first lessons that cybercriminals learned today. But it goes further than that. If you think about a lot of the scams that take place today, whether it be PlayStation fives, or cryptocurrency or anything else like that, you’ve got something that that potential victim once that desire for that, that merchandise that item is such that it allows me as a predator to come in and more easily gained trust with that potential victim and to manipulate that victim at the same time. Trust online. The way that that’s established is pretty weird. Trust online is established through technology tools, social engineering. So we inherently for some reason we inherently trust the technology. We trust our cell phones, our desktops, we trust the websites we go to. We trust the software that we that we use even though we don’t understand it, we trust it. That’s why We have trouble with fake news. That’s why, you know, people can spoof can use tools like spoofed phone numbers, or Sox, five proxies to spoof their location and their phone numbers. All this stuff is very easy to build trust, because people just inherently kind of trust what they don’t understand


Mike Malatesta  40:16

they want to trust. It’s what


Brett Johnson  40:19

we as human beings want to trust, right. And that lays a base level of trust. And once that doors open, you see how good of a social engineer someone is in manipulating someone to give them information, access data, or cash. So that’s really, that Beanie Baby story is really kind of a microcosm of the way most frauds happen, you can substitute any type of crypto token you want to enter that story. And that will work out just fine. You can substitute those PlayStation fives that people were getting ripped off on year and a half ago. And that works just fine no matter what the item is. That story is kind of a microcosm for that. And, you know, the problem is, is that we as human beings, we do we want to trust people. And we just don’t verify things the way that we should we think that, you know, we sign on to dating sites. And our desire to have that relationship or friendship is such that it allows a predator like I used to be to come in and get someone to, to set reason and logic to the side, and react emotionally. Because if I can get you to react and react emotionally, I’m going to get you. And that’s always what you’re looking for, from the predator point of view, to reason logic to the side and then go from there. So that was the first online crime that I committed, I did it under my own name, got away with it, and kept going. And I got better at understanding the ways or the dynamics of cybercrime got to where I was selling pirated software, pirated software led him to mod chips. So you would solder a chip onto a circuit board of maybe a gaming system. So you could play the pirated software pirated games, or a cable box so that you could watch all the Pay Per View channels. And then finally, I started to program satellite DSS cards, those 18 inch RCA satellite systems, you can take the access card out, program and turn on all the channels all the pay per view, started doing that, at almost the exact same time that the Canadian government ruled that it was legal to pirate those signals. A Canadian judge actually said in court that since RCA didn’t sell the systems, that his citizens could pirate those signals. And what happened is he was a complete idiot. But what happens is, is overnight in the United States, little industry pops up, you go down to Best Buy, buy the system for $100, take it out in the parking lot, open it up, pull the system out, pull the card out, throw the system away, program the card and ship it to Canada $500 a pop, started doing that making a lot of money had so many orders could not fill them all and quickly. And I do mean quickly thought to myself, Why do I need to fill any of the orders there in Canada? I’m down here. Who are they going to complain to? It’s illegal. So it didn’t feel any of the orders stole even more money. At that point. I was stealing, like, between four and $6,000 a week and got worried about how much money was coming in. I thought I was gonna be looked at for money laundering. I figured the best thing that I could do is get a fake driver’s license. Use that to open up a bank account, launder the money through the account, pull the cash out of the ATMs didn’t know where to get a fake ID and got online started look around and thought I found a guy and set them $200. So the guy my picture, and he rips me off. He did exactly what he did. Exactly, yeah. Okay. And here’s, here’s here’s one of the takeaways from this. One of the things that you find that fraudsters and fraudsters are all organized these days online, but fraudsters, a lot of us get ripped off a lot. And we tend to chalk it up just as the cost of business, but a lot of us lose a lot of money just on scammers that are out there. Guy rips me off and I get pissed because hey, I need this ID. And the result of that was this thing called Shadow group. So cybercrime in order for cybercrime to be successful, three things have to take place, you have to gather data, you have to commit a crime. And then finally, you have to cash that crime out. All three things have to work in conjunction, if they don’t, the crime fails the problem, and it’s a huge problem. The problem is, is that one criminal can’t do all three things. He’s good at one thing, sometimes two, but can’t do all three. So you have to rely on other people who are good in those areas where you are not now before shadow crew, the and that’s that’s why it’s never a single attacker which victimizes you or your company. By the way before shadow crew. You couldn’t really network with other criminals. The only avenue you had to talk to other criminals was this thing called IRC Internet Relay Chat, this rolling chat board where you had no idea who you were talking to, if the person knew what they were talking about if they had a product or service if they had it. If it worked or if they were just going to rip you off. because every one there was a crook shadow crew soft that shadow crew gave a trust mechanism that criminals could use. Now you had this large communication channel, this forum type structure where individuals from different time zones could reference conversations days, weeks, months old, they could take part in those conversations, learn from those conversations, ask questions, you knew by looking at someone’s screen name, what the skill level of that person was, what they did, if you could trust him, if you could learn network work with him, what have you. We had vouching systems in place review systems in place escrow systems in place, all with a singular purpose of establishing trust with one criminal and another when they would never meet each other, not know each other’s real name, not even know what each other look like. That was the primary what I say is the most important thing that happened was shadow crew. Now shadow crew was also the first marketplace of criminal goods online. And we dealt with basically everything. Most of it was financial cybercrime, identity information, but we also trafficked and in drugs at one point, counterfeit currency, stuff like that, the only thing we did not traffic and we traveled it, and weapons as well. The only thing we did not engage in was child pornography. Everything else was opened open menu at that point.


Mike Malatesta  46:17

So let me just let me just try to layman this, this sounds like it’s a a marketplace of trust, for the trust less, right to. So it’s not so the the idea is we’re not just going to do one score and, you know, hide somewhere, we’re going to take each other’s unique abilities. And we’re going to create something where we work together over and over. Ran, we do it in such a way where our talents are, are maximized, but our identities are still kept separate. So we’re not sort of, do I have that right? You do


Brett Johnson  46:52

if you think it’s a pretty neat concept, if you think about it, it’s it was so successful, I was the guy who built that trust mechanism. And that mechanism is still what is used today, in online criminal environments. That’s how you establish trust with one person. And another is that that whole system of things that’s there, and it’s necessary, I mean, it’s one of these things if you’re dealing with a criminal, and most criminals are motivated by cash or looking to steal currency, if you’re not able to trust that individual, then that means that any person can come in and victimize you and you’re not going to be successful. So that was one of the things that we did there. Shadow Korea was the first I call it the eBay of cybercrime. It was, it was a marketplace, I don’t like the word eBay, because it was a little bit different. But you had that going on there as well. And I and also the other big takeaway from Chateau crew, when it was built, we were open source, we did not believe in keeping information away from other members, everything was discussed publicly. And we shared information across the board that today is still in play. And that today is really the reason that you see all these verticals, you know, merchants, retailers, infrastructure, everything else. That’s why you see financial institutions, what have you. That’s why you see them playing a game of catch up. It’s not that they are proactive, it’s that they are reactive to what the bad guys are doing. And the reason for that is they don’t communicate with each other. They don’t share information. Now, there’s privacy concerns, there’s regulations that stopped that as well. But there’s also competitive edges. So you’ll have one company in a vertical that they’re getting hit with some sort of fraud or cybercrime, and they won’t share that information, any of that information at all with other companies in that are competitors in that same vertical with the hope that, hey, we’ll put security in, and it’ll be the good neighbor policy, we’ll send them to our neighbors down the street where they can hit them instead. So you see that a lot. And, and because of that, it tends to be that the good guys are reactive. When it comes to cybercrime. It’s very hard to take a proactive stance, if no one is on the same page, we understood when shadow grew was built, that by educating everyone equally across the board, everyone becomes better educated and more profitable at the end of the day. And that’s still the way it is today. You still see that type of mindset in play, where the good guys have still not quite gotten there.


Mike Malatesta  49:14

What can the good guys do it? What how do it seems like a simple thing, if you’re as organized as they are, the likelihood that you’ll get ripped off is declines and that benefits everybody. So what


Brett Johnson  49:25

we are seeing some headway. For example, banks, banks have have passed legislation where they can communicate with each other. Now they have to strip the PII that’s out of that, but they can communicate and banks tend to be fairly decent about communicating with each other as well. All right, but a lot of the other verticals, merchants, retailers, infrastructure, things like that. You don’t really see that FinTech, crypto all that you don’t really see that communication that’s going on. And again, you’ve got privacy concerns, regulations, but a lot of it is the competitive edges that are kind of weeding that stuff out. Just the end, it’s not just communicating with companies outside of you. It’s also the the communication inside or within the companies themselves. A lot of the times you’ll see customer service fraud, the fraud department doesn’t want to hear from customer service. The engineering department doesn’t want to hear from the fraud department. So you’ve you see these closed circles in companies that don’t communicate with each other. management doesn’t want to hear from anybody there. They know everything. So you see this, this kind of this culture of just not sharing, or being open across the board, and that that really benefits nobody, but the criminals that are out there. And it benefits them greatly. I mean, really great.


Mike Malatesta  50:42

I can see that. Yeah, sure, everybody, thanks for listening to this show. And before you go, I just have three requests for you one, if you like what I’m doing please consider subscribing or following the podcast on whatever podcast platform you prefer. If you’re really into it, leave me a review, write something nice about me, give me five stars or whatever you feel is most appropriate. Number two, I’ve got a book it’s called owner shift how getting selfish got me unstuck. It’s an Amazon bestseller, and I’d love for you to read it or listen to it on Audible or wherever else Barnes Noble Amazon, you can get it everywhere. If you’re looking for inspiration that will help you unlock your greatness and potential order or download it today so that you can have your very own copy. And if you get it please let me know what you think. Number three, my newsletter. I do a newsletter every Thursday. And I talk about things that are interesting to me and or I give more information about the podcast and the podcast guests that I’ve had and the experiences that I’ve had with them. You can sign up for the podcast today at my website, which is my name Mike You do that right now put in your email address and you’ll get the very next issue. The newsletter is short, thoughtful and designed to inspire, activate and maximize the greatness in you

Alexi Cortopassi

Alexi Cortopassi

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