Brett Johnson Article by David Mauro, Cyber Crime Junkies

Redemption. New Insight from the Cybercrime Godfather, Brett Johnson. PART 1

Do you believe in Redemption? This is the story of living proof of it. And of transformation.

Curious what cyber criminals do when they want out of that way of life? Ever wonder what happens to cyber criminals after they get busted?

Do they change? What do they do afterwards?

Ever wonder what a massive sting operation is like from the inside? One involving law enforcement in 6 countries making International News?

This is the remarkable story of Brett Johnson. If you don't know Brett, you will.

He has a remarkable story that is human, genuine and inspiring.

He is an all around Great Guy who bolsters our faith in humankind.

Here is our new article: Redemption. New Insight from the Cybercrime Godfather, Brett Johnson. PART 1

Note: The following is Part 1 in a two (2) part series.

Brett Johnson never does anything quietly.  Or softly. He is hilarious. Opinionated. Brilliant. He is also a former US Most Wanted cyber criminal. Brett changed the trajectory of his life after working for the US secret service, serving time in federal prison. He now is a good guy who knows exactly how the “cyber criminal mind” works. It’s rare that a cyber criminal changes, their stripes, let alone does so much good for the community that serves and protects individuals, families, and organizations’ brands.

Brett Johnson’s path to reach positive transformation was not an easy one. Nor an overnight success.

It took a lot of work, discipline, and faith. Faith is himself, faith in his family, as well as the FBI and related federal law enforcement resources involved.

This is his story. The True Cyber Crime Story of Brett Johnson.


Do you believe we are either all good or all bad? That prior “bad acts” define us for the rest of our life? Or do you believe in our ability to truly change for the better?

To me, I do not believe life is like an old Greek Tragedy, where the character is one-dimensional-either all bad or all good.

With intent and action, strong will and fortitude, change does happen and can be permanent.

Evaluating Criminal Behavior

Have you ever done something you knew was wrong? Everyone has, to some degree, if they are honest. More importantly, have you thought about why? Did you do it out of greed or selfishness? Was it to demonstrate something to someone? To demonstrate love?

We certainly are all accountable for what we do, or fail to do. At the same time, the human has an immeasurable ability to rebrand, rejuvenate and to genuinely be remorseful.

Many people are not unredeemable.

 We were lucky enough to sit down with someone like Brett Johnson, and to have several long conversations on these deep-seeded topics.


We discussed and gained insight
to share with you
on the root-causes of the criminal mind,
criminal behavior, empathy, love, remorse, and redemption.


It’s an in-depth, no-limit, discussion in real-life with someone who has lived it. Brett has genuinely turned his life around and found the true meaning of family and love. He is truly remorseful and has spent the second chapter of his life spending his waking days helping fight the good fight of cybercrime. 

Meet Brett Johnson.

He was named by the the U.S. Secret Service as “The Original Internet Godfather”, a name that stuck. If you haven’t seen him speak, check him out.

He is also an in-demand international Public Speaker. When we met with him he was jetting off to Dubai to speak at a middle east security convention. He has lots of YouTube videos, documentaries about portions of his story, and he is the Host of the Brett Johnson show.

He could have been an A-List Actor…
but he wound up here.


Brett Johnson is the former United States Most Wanted and has been a central figure in the cyber crime world for over 20 years. He built and was the leader of Shadow Crew, which was the very first darknet market. He was instrumental in creating many areas of online crime and fraud, committing an organized crime syndicate involved in modern identity theft, social engineering account takeover fraud (ATO), as well as IRS tax fraud.


If your tax returns are late, he’s the one of the first reasons.


This is due, in part, because use there are so many fraudulent tax returns filed after peoples Social Security numbers are stolen. He is the guy who takes ownership and accountability for starting that phenomenon years ago. 

Arrested, Escaped & Recaptured

Our podcast discussion goes through the dramatic sting operation that lead to the FBI and US Secret Service simultaneously taking down the Shadow Crew all in one fell swoop, covering over 6 countries in 6 hours in one single day.

Brett escaped that sting but was caught a few months later. He was captured following a massive U.S. law enforcement raid which made international headlines. Because of his expertise and sincere desire to change the trajectory of his life, the United States Secret Service hired him as a consultant and undercover informant.

He worked with the Secret Service for several months, but then fell prey to his own demons and bad habits. He simply had not (internally) decided to change. Yet. He went on a cross country crime spree. He was then placed on the United States Most-Wanted List. And captured again. This time he went to prison.

After being released from prison, times were extremely difficult, and he would recidivate. At a time he describes as “an epiphany” he finally came to terms and accepted responsibility for his actions.


 “After years of justifying everything,

I realized that I was in prison because I chose to break the law.”

- Brett Johnson

He realized it was a choice. It was all a choice this whole time. He had been doing these massive thefts and crimes (earning hundreds of thousands of dollars each week, not for himself. He thought he had to earn that in order to express love. It was the only way he knew how to express it. To find out why, we have to go to what created this inner thought process. To fully understand the meaning behind all this, we have to understand where it started.


The Early Years

Brett had a childhood unlike most others. What’s refreshing is that he does not blame his family for the completely skewed environment they raised him in. He takes accountability, true ownership, for his actions and openly admits they were conscious choices.

Growing up in poverty in eastern Kentucky, as a child Brett could never seem to catch a break or be lifted up by others. There was no mentor. Nobody who instilled faith and guidance. These aren’t excuses for behavior, just facts. His own mother, who by all accounts was abusive both physically and mentally, sabotaged his free ride to college by pulling a knife on the College administrator.

Brett walks us through crime after crime, scam after scam, from petty retail theft (stealing chicken to eat dinner) to developing a complex system for illegally mining coal. There is a colorful discussion on that subject and more in the episode.

At one point, he even started his fraudulent Kiwanis club. Yes, a fake Kiwanis club, which was working until he showed up at the door of the actual president of the Kiwanis club.


The Dark Web

Brett soon discovered the power that anonymity brings online. When we think of the dark web and the use of the onion router (TOR browser) many are unaware of its origin. It was created by the United States government for a noble cause. To promote free speech in countries that punish free-speech and block the truth with propaganda. But, as with many things, with anonymity comes a beacon and magnet for criminal behavior.

Technology is no different than the physical world when it comes to crime. Integrity is measured by your choices when (you believe) nobody will find out. The anonymity of the dark web is like a closed secure room where nobody can actually truly know that it is you that is conducting the acts. At least in theory. 

Peanut the Blue Elephant

One of his first true cyber crime stories that Brett conducted involves eBay and a highly-coveted, Beanie Baby plush toy-Peanut the Blue Elephant.

The story illustrates the extent to which criminals will go to accomplish their goals. It also taught him a lesson on victim behavior. The reality that victims will rarely go to the police or call law-enforcement due to their own embarrassment of being swindled, fooled, and socially engineered.


The criminal mind was bolstered once he realized
 the power of the internet’s anonymity
and his understanding of victim behavior.


The amount of revenue that a kid from Eastern Kentucky could earn was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per week. That is often enough to make most people misbehave, especially if they believe they are completely anonymous and will never get caught. And especially when they believe those around him demanded that amount of money in order to be loved.


Shadow Crew

Brett’s foray into cybercrime let him to create the first cybercrime website that offered various illegal services and products for sale online. It was called Shadow Crew.

ShadowCrew was the very first darkweb marketplace which operated online between August 2002 and November 2004. According to Brett "GOllumfun" Johnson "The History of ShadowCrew, The Precursors of the Darkweb" (29 June 2017) the ShadowCrew was developed in early 2002 during a series of chat sessions between Brett Johnson (GOllumfun), Seth Sanders (Kidd), and Kim Marvin Taylor (MacGayver).

Brett attributes much of its success to lessons he learned early on (i.e. Peanut The Blue Elephant) about victim behavior. The crime syndicate created a process that would “vet” it’s members and instill a sense of trust.

Once registered as a member, member buy lots of criminal items like counterfeit legal documents at or read “Tutorials and How-To’s” describing the use of cryptography in magnetic strips on ATM/credit cards.  The Shadow Crew specialized in selling fraudulent identities and cards. In the criminal industry they call people who do this as “carders”. 

In addition to the card numbers, numerous other objects of identity theft were sold at auction, including counterfeit passports, drivers’ licenses, Social Security cards, credit cards, debit cards, birth certificates, college student identification cards, and health insurance cards.[10] One member even sold 18 million e-mail accounts with associated usernames, passwords, dates of birth, and other personally identifying information. 

With these illegal credentials, people could re-invent themselves with new identities.


You could easily get a death certificate
and start your life over
with good credit and no past.


The ShadowCrew website also contained a number of sub-forums on the latest information on hacking tricks, social engineering, credit card fraud, virus development, scams, and phishing. Brett ran other underground sites at the same time called and

The way they were paid was through cryptocurrency called EGold and other forms which operate just like crypto does today, albeit without the blockchain technology underpinning modern crypto.

Brett, though, was the mastermind behind the whole organization, and he had built a system, a syndicate. And it paid well. He has described the amount of money flowing in to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per week.

Per week.  

But crime doesn’t always pay, of course, and the risk involved is the loss of your liberty and freedom.

And his motivation for all this? He said he did it all to show love by buying luxurious gifts for family at the time. He said the money itself didn’t even motivate or satisfy him. He didn’t need much money to be satisfied.

Brett explains that the ShadowCrew grew to over 4,000 members, including the infamous Albert Gonzalez (Soup Nazi, CumbaJohnny) and even the likes of Gerry Cotten and Michael Patryn a/k/a Omar Dhanani).


Look for Part 2 of This Series coming soon


Come Get The Whole Story

There are so many life lessons in these discussions that we broke it up into two (2) parts for our Podcast and Vlog: Cyber Crime Junkies.

  • Redemption. New Insight from the Cybercrime Godfather, Brett Johnson. PART 1 
    • His Background
    • Stories and evolution into cybercrime
    • ShadowCrew


  • Redemption. New Insight from the Cybercrime Godfather, Brett Johnson. PART 2 
    • The Final Take Down
    • His Epiphany
    • Family, Love and Mentorship by Federal Law Enforcement
    • True Redemption
    • Today’s Best Practices
    • How He helps keep us safe from people like Him (the former Him)




To Connect with Brett

For more information on Brett Johnson, check out his Linkedin and his show as well as the Angler Phish Podcast available everywhere.

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