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.

48 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.

    1. Some people for any reason, pay to the scammer. Do you know that all the scammer are very very rich? If you pay, all of them would says “stupid American, I should have scammer you more money,” otherwise someone else would.

  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.

    1. Word for Word sent from St. Louis Missouri to San Francisco California. But they only want 7100 for me

      I wonder what you other guys did to deserve a higher demand

    2. Except for name, address and amount ($7250) rec’d exact same wording here in boring old San Jose, CA on 2 June 2018–letter mailed from St. Louis, MO

  7. I just received the exact same letter as well, postmarked Nashville TN on April 21st, from an extortionist using a similarly constructed pseudonym — Dust~ — and seeking an amount from me greater than that sought from Joshua and John. So, the scam is still ongoing.

  8. I just received the exact same letter as well, postmarked Nashville TN on April 21st, from an extortionist using a similarly constructed pseudonym — (Adjective)Dust~(##) — and seeking an amount from me greater than that sought from Joshua and John. So, the scam is still ongoing.

  9. Hey, my husband just got the letter. It is identical, but it asked for $8700 in bitcoin. He laughed and immediately handed it to me (the wife). I laughed and handed it to my 20 year old son (getting ready for marine boot camp). He laughed and handed it to my 26 year old daughter (who read it to her computer genius boyfriend). They laughed too. We don’t laugh all that much these days, so this was a bit of a surprise. I admit I asked if it was written by a Nigerian prince…..Does anyone seriously fall for this?

    1. WOW – my letter came yesterday. Eastcoaster’s reply caught my eye because my son is getting ready to leave for the military. Is this a common thread or just an fluke?

  10. I got the exact same letter! Almost word for word. Mine is from BlackSun~46 and they want $8400. Also, mine was postmarked in Nashville. I don’t have a blog to post mine, so I went with Facebook. Thanks for posting though. I confess it was reassuring that I’m not the only person to get the attention of blackmailers….

  11. I got one this week, postmarked from Memphis, TN. However, they sent the letter to my parents’ address. I haven’t lived there in 20 years, so I wonder what database they’re using to pull information. The house certainly isn’t in my name.

  12. +1, postmarked from Memphis, TN on May 11. Now everyone will know that I’ve stolen candy from a baby. The shame.

  13. I feel sad for American. American always think that as long as we speak loud & clear the whole understand would them. But, they are unaware that this is also the reason that American became the easy target to the world. If American don’t use the language that whole educated people could also understand, at least American would become target of the whole world scammer.

    I sincerely hope that all American is educated enough to understand that money does not always solve the problem, because the scammer think that you have money, and if you give them the amount that they were asking, I am certain they would ask for more, because now they know that you have something to hide, and they will find all the way to take all of your money until you become homeless and says “stupid American, you deserve to be scam.”

  14. Just received exact same letter in Fallbrook, CA. Amount was for $8,650. Letter was postmarked May 15th from Birmingham, AL. Not sure if I have an obligation to forward this to authorities? Since articles on this topic state that the FBi was aware of this, I called them to see if they wanted my letter. They referred me to the post office. And honestly, i’m thinking the post office probably wont do anything with this so I’m thinking I will post it on our neighborhood website. If you have some better ideas, let me know!

    1. Me too! Postmarked May 15, 2018, from Birmingham AL for $8,300. from RedLand~25 Showed it to everyone in my office so everyone can share the laugh.

    2. one more for letters from Birmingham Al postmarked May 15th from SwiftFire~12.My magic number was $8900.
      Spoke with our local police, they weren’t interested in seeing it.

  15. Thanks Josh, for this article, and Ike, for your excellent explanations of the varying dollar amounts.

    My husband received this letter this weekend in Moraga, CA, for $8,350, and also postmarked May 15th from Birmingham, AL. I asked Dave Eargle (https://daveeargle.com/2016/10/24/I-received-a-blackmail-letter/) for his recommendation on who to contact; he said we should report it to Kyle Parker, the USPIS Inspector in Memphis who is assigned to this case. His email address is kwparker@uspis.gov and the article, below, provides a Postal Inspectors hotline of 877-876-2455.

    http://wreg.com/2018/05/18/u-s-postal-inspectors-investigate-nationwide-scam-involving-bitcoin/

    (Ike, I would like to reward you for providing such valuable insights and so you will have more than an air mattress upon which to sleep. Please provide your bank details so that I might send you the money.)

  16. I would suppose that all amounts would be less than 10,000 since that is a banking limit under which most banking institutions don’t report FINTRAC. If a transaction is over 10,000 it must be reported.

  17. My husband received this letter today, but from GreyNews15 with a postmark of May 29th from Champaign, Il and asking for $7,800. We live in Los Angeles (Brentwood,CA).

  18. We just received the letter yesterday. Different BITCOIN account, amount ($7700), and it was sent from St. Louis, MO, but everything else is identical. We called the police, but they never called back. PS–The first thing I said to my husband was, “Wow! This is a really well-written letter! He must be well-educated and American-born to have such a strong command of grammar and syntax!” (Former Prof of English) 🙂

    1. I too got one yesterday, with a Bitcoin amount of $7150, also postmarked from St. Louis. The scammer must be on a road trip through the Midwest. My wife and I had a good laugh about it.

  19. Same letter sent from Indianapolis, IN for $7,950, but a bitcoin address starting with 14hB16… I live in DC.

  20. I too have received the identical letter but with a slightly new twist. There was no postmark. Just a little pen mark crossed over the stamp. The envelope was not sealed either. It’s as if it was just dropped into my box by the scammer. And my payoff was $7350.

  21. My husband got the same letter yesterday from Indianapolis, IN with a demand for $7,100. We live in San Jose, CA. The sender must have some success with this as the postage would add up quickly. I wonder if more than one person is sending these letters?

  22. I believe the cons are using Zillow.com to get the addresses and picking the homes with values above a certain amount then accessing public records for names of owners. Thanks Zillow. Also unsealed letter—no lick, no DNA? St Louis, Missouri, Champaign Illinois, Louisville Kentucky and Indianapolis Indiana are all within an easy drive of each other. Get on it, FBI.

  23. Some people for any reason, pay to the scammer. Do you know that all the scammer are very very rich? If you pay, all of them would says “stupid American, I should have scammer you more money,” otherwise someone else would.

  24. Mine arrived Saturday. Postmarked from Indianapolis, requested $7600. I googled the “name” of BadHeart11 out of curiosity. Nothing to learn from that either.

    My wife opened the letter accidentally so we had some minor tension for about 20 minutes. Then we found this information. Thanks for putting this out there

  25. Hi guys, I got my letter this week so I took it to our local police station (Boxford, MA). The response was: “We’ve seen a lot of these lately – not much we can do about it. Hang on to the letter just in case.” The officer did say that they would post a warning on the police department website and report on it on our local access cable channel. (Apparently our senior citizens actually watch the local access cable channel, and they are the most likely to fall for scams.)

  26. Just received an open letter from SwiftRatio3 asking for $7,650. This letter has all the same characteristics of the others mentioned. Postmarked May 31 from Louisville

    Thank you all for posting and verifying this scam

  27. I just received the same letter demanding $7400.00 post marked 5/29/18 from St Louis, MO. Unsealed. Reported to the Police Department Fremont, CA.

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