My Bitcoin blackmail experience started with a well-written letter

I got a Bitcoin blackmail letter in the mail on Saturday. They did a much better job than those Nigerian prince scams you get by email. Here’s the text of the letter:

JOSHUA BERNOFF
[my address]

Hello Joshua, I’m going to cut to the chase. My name is RedDust~10 and I know about the secret you are keeping from your wife and everyone else. More importantly, I have evidence of what you have been hiding. I won’t go into the specifics here in case your wife intercepts this, but you know what I am talking about.

You don’t know me personally and nobody hired me to look into you. Nor did I go out looking to burn you. It is just your bad luck that I stumbled across your misadventures while working a job around Arlington. I then put in more time than I probably should have looking into your life. Frankly, I am ready to forget all about you and let you get on with your life. And I am going to give you two options that will accomplish that very thing. Those two options are to either ignore this letter, or simply pay me $8,350. Let’s examine those two options in more detail.

Option 1 is to ignore this letter. Let me tell you what will happen if you choose this path. I will take this evidence and send it to your wife. And as insurance against you intercepting it before your wife gets it, I will also send copies to her friends, family and your neighbors on and around Florence Avenue. So, Joshua, even if you decide to come clean with your wife, it won’t protect her from the humiliation she will feel when her friends and family find out your sordid details from me.

Option 2 is to pay me $8,350. We’ll call this my “confidentiality fee”. Now let me tell you what happens if you choose this path. Your secret remains your secret. You go on with your life as though none of this ever happened. Though you may want to do a better job at keeping your misdeeds secret in the future.

At this point you may be thinking, “I’ll just go to the cops.” Which is why I have taken steps to ensure this letter cannot be traced back to me. So that won’t help, and it won’t stop the evidence from destroying your life. I’m not looking to break your bank. I just want to be compensated for the time I put into investigating you.

Let’s assume you have decided to make all this go away and pay me the confidentiality fee. In keeping with my strategy to not go to jail, we will not meet in person and there will be no physical exchange of cash. You will pay me anonymously using bitcoin. If you want me to keep your secret, then send $8,350 in BITCOIN to the Receiving Bitcoin Address listed below. Payment MUST be received within 10 days of the post marked date on this letter’s envelope. If you are not familiar with bitcoin, attached is a “How-To” guide. You will need the below two pieces of information when referencing the guide.

Required Amount: $8,350

Receiving Bitcoin Address:

12SvX77tKEGgGfj4fiHh[additional characters redacted]

Tell no one what you will be using the bitcoin for or they may not give it to you. The procedure to obtain bitcoin can take a day or two so do not put it off. Again, payment must be received within 10 days of this letter’s post marked date. If I don’t receive the bitcoin by the deadline, I will go ahead and release the evidence to everyone. If you go that route, then the least you could do is tell your wife so she can come up with an excuse to prepare her friends and family before they find out. The clock is ticking, Joshua.

As a piece of writing, this is excellent. The opening paragraph immediately captures your interest. The sentences are simple and declarative. Notice that there is no passive voice: the blackmailer uses the pronoun “I” a the subject of the sentences about what he (or she) will do if I don’t pay. It also effectively uses the pronoun “you” to draw the reader in. It’s neither excessively emotional nor excessively pedantic — it’s straightforward and clear.

The instructions on what to do are also clear. The descriptions of Option 1 and Option 2 contrast nicely. And the blackmailer has anticipated what you might call Option 3, contacting the police, and explained the consequences of that. It ignores Option 4, post the letter on your blog, but I suppose the blackmailer didn’t feel that was necessary to explain — perhaps he or she hasn’t researched me as thoroughly as the letter implies.

The text I’ve shown here includes the text on the front and back of the first sheet. There is a second sheet including a clear set of numbered instructions on how to use Bitcoin to transfer money.

What would you do?

I opened this unmarked window envelope quickly since I was expecting to get a check from a client this week. The letter was postmarked in Evanston, Illinois and included a normal first-class stamp.

While I was disappointed not to get the check, this letter was almost as good.

I’m not aware of any secrets that a stranger could reveal to my wife and cause me a problem. I’m afraid while my public life is full of interesting challenges, my private life is pretty happy and boring and certainly free of scandal. So the threat didn’t register with me at all. (Admittedly, I tried for a moment to imagine what a blackmailer might reveal, and couldn’t come up with anything.)

I know enough about Bitcoin to understand how this works: if I followed the instructions, there would be an untraceable transfer of my money to someone else, far easier than dropping cash in a duffel bag somewhere. Bitcoin is a perfect modus vivendi for blackmail.

Unlike email blackmail, though, this letter required somebody to actually fold up and mail a letter, which looked like it had been done by hand. I am guessing that the blackmailers pick a bunch of targets in upper-middle-class suburbs and send out a bunch of these letters. Apparently the price has gone up since Krebs on Security wrote about it January.

The online articles suggested that the police and FBI were interested. I called the police, and a uniformed officer came by and had a look. He said he hadn’t seen a letter like this before. (I had carefully handled the letter and envelope to prevent adding too many of my own fingerprints, but he ignored that, handled the letter with his bare hands, wrote my information on it with a pen, and took it with him to give to a detective.)

Why a well-written letter?

The Nigerian prince email scams tend to be transparently fake. I’ve read that this is intentional — the only people who respond are idiots, who are good marks for the scam.

In this case, I think the blackmailer would prefer a moderately well-educated and affluent victim. People like me are more likely to both have this much money available and to respond to a clear and well-written letter. And we’ve probably heard of Bitcoin.

I wonder if the blackmailers used a copy editor, or have done A/B testing to determine which letters are most effective. I wonder how the amount came to be $8,350, up from $3,600 in the letters sent in January. These elements make me think this is a pretty effectively run operation.

If you are a blackmailer like this, please add a comment on this post to tell me how well your operation is working and who writes your letters.

If you’re not a blackmailer, you can still learn something here. Obviously, don’t respond to letters like this. And don’t be a criminal scammer.

But take a look at how effectively the author uses pronouns, direct and clear language, logic, and easily understood instructions. This letter is an exercise in both persuasion, and in how-to language. It succeeds as both (well, at least if the target is feeling guilty, it might). You could do worse than copying the techniques they use.

14 responses to “My Bitcoin blackmail experience started with a well-written letter

  1. Thank you for posting the letter but do you really want your home address published for all your ‘followers’ to see?

    1. My home address is not a secret. In fact, it’s on the contact page of my site:

      https://withoutbullshit.com/contact#contact

      Your home address is not a secret, either. I found it with a few minutes of Googling. I even know how much your condo is assessed at this year.

      I won’t publish it, since you seem to be sensitive about the information.

      I am not trying to hide my information, which in any case would be futile.

    2. Thanks!! I’m just sensitive to this because many of my students inadvertently post private information. I appreciate your transparency and thoroughly enjoy your blog posts!!

  2. I loved this exposition on blackmailers. They have upped their game but still are doing the carpet bombing emails instead of microtargeting! Thanks for sharing. Made my day. And Red Dust 10 is an excellent writer, gotta give him that.

  3. Way to make lemonade out of lemons, Josh!

    Allow me to answer one of your questions. There are two reasons for the amount to change:

    1) When security firms and/or cops start circulating the scam, those who do the bitcoin conversion will be looking for that amount. They will not make a conversion if they know they might be possibly labeled as accessory to blackmail. If the amount stayed constant, that would be a flag that would stop the sale.

    2) The amount in the scam is going to vary with each potential victim – the amount itself is a marker. You see, just as it is anonymous to YOU, the transfer is going to be anonymous to HIM. Since you correctly guessed that a lot of affluent targets are getting shotgunned this threat, the only way they will know who replied is by cross-indexing the amount showing up on their end with their list of victims. And once they know they got you the first time, you will be an easy mark for future blackmail. After all, you are shelling out a lot of virtual coin to keep SOMETHING secret.

    Thanks again!

  4. While reading this blog I keep thinking about mass mailings and Thomas Ahern. I would love to find out what kind of ROI this person or group is earning.

  5. Great post Josh. Isn’t there some federal law about mail fraud once a letter goes through USPS, upping this automatically to a federal crime of interest to the FBI?

  6. I received the exact same letter. Postmarked from Knoxville Tenn on March 24th. The name this time was different, and the amount was $8750. Beware.

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