This is part 2, the final chapter in our series Redemption. New Insight from the Cybercrime Godfather, Brett Johnson.
For those who has not read Part 1 published earlier, we encourage you to do so before checking out this second part….
Where we left off was how the Shadow Crew syndicate had grown massively and served as the EBAY of identity theft and financial criminal activity online….and unbeknownst to them…the house of cards began to fall….
Crack in the Foundation & The Soup Nazi
As reported in federal indictments and multiple articles from Wired to the New York Times, the fall of Albert Gonzalez (AKA Soup Nazi, CumbaJohnny etc) was one of the many first reasons the walls came crumbling down.
On a warm night in Manhattan in July 2003, just around midnight, A man dressed in women’s clothing with costume jewelry and a fake nose ring approached an ATM machine in a bank lobby. He repeatedly pulled out ATM card after ATM card from his pocket and withdrew hundreds of dollars in cash. Then he pulled out another card and did the same thing. He continued doing this, cramming his his pockets with cash and pulling out card after card.
“Well, that’s strange” thought a couple of undercover detectives who were off duty having coffee nearby. After about 45 minutes of this obvious oddity they decided to approach the woman (man).
Indeed, the young man was in the act of “cashing out,” as he would later admit. Al Gonzalez had programmed a stack of blank debit cards with stolen card numbers and was withdrawing as much cash as he could from each account. He was doing this just before midnight since the bank withdrawal limits reset at midnight so he could double his take. Al was part of Shadow Crew.
In our Cyber Crime Junkies podcast episodes you will also learn who else was part of Shadow Crew. Significantly these people have become famous and subject of hundreds of articles, videos and even a Netflix documentary (Death in Cryptoland-definitely worth a watch)
Al Gonzalez later admitted he dressed like a woman to throw off anyone who might later look at surveillance footage.
Brett explains that Albert cooperated with police upon his arrest, was turned over to the US Secret Service and the New Jersey U.S. attorney’s office in Newark, which, along with agents from the Secret Service’s Electronic Crimes Task Force, had been investigating credit- and debit-card fraud involving cashers in the area, without much luck.
Gonzalez turned into an informant to avoid prosecution. After all he had the US Secret Service holding 20 years of prison over his head and he was only 22 years old at the time.
Gonzalez eventually set up the members of Shadow crew since they all got together online at the same time on Sunday evenings. One evening, Albert called a meeting to discuss something routine and meanwhile the US secret service, alongside law enforcement in six (6) other countries all waited in anticipation.
The massive bust which made international headlines involved the simultaneous take-down of Shadow Crew members all at once. Albert Gonzalez was working as a secret undercover US Secret Service agent at the time and called a meeting of members on Sunday Oct 26th 2004.
Brett shares the details in the first episode. In total, 33 people in 6 countries in 6 hours were arrested in a massive international take down. The Federal indictment says, "Shadowcrew was an international organization of approximately 4,000 members…" At the end, only about 50 were ever caught and prosecuted.
Again a few key others are still out there and have been the subject and involved in several high profile crypto scams heavily covered in the media.
Those who got away, according to many, included the infamous Gerry Cotton, CEO and founder of the largest crypto exchange in Canada who’s mysterious death is subject of a recent Netflix documentary called Death in Cryptoland. Gerry Cotton’s mysterious death and/or disappearance is the subject of our investigation and will be part of another episode, soon to be released.
The ShadowCrew site was seized, and the US Secret Service took over.
Brett describes how he got away, at least for the moment, as did many others. He was placed some United States most wanted list and captured four months later. He was ultimately convicted of 39 Felonies. He would bounce back and then recidivate.
Eventually he learned his lesson and quit running.
He served his time and believed that he had changed course.
TURNING A NEW LEAF
For three years after being released from prison on probation in 2011, he extremely difficult to get a job because he wasn’t able to use a computer is terms of his probation.
Brett met his current wife during this time and moved in with her. He was able to find a job doing yard work and he thought he was doing better.
The National Institute of Justice defines recidivism as one of the most fundamental concepts in criminal justice. It refers to a person's relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime.
At this time Brett found it hard to survive during the winter months. He eventually caved and got online to find stolen credit card information and started making orders. Again, Brett was caught and sent back to prison. This time for 10 months.
What happened next changed the trajectory of his life and that if his family. After serving this last prison stint for 10 months, he got married, and started to turn his life around.
Learning How To Love
Brett Johnson accepted responsibility and found redemption through his loved ones and the help of the FBI. And thanks, in part, to the power of Linkedin. It seems ironic that the internet platforms (with the anonymity and ability to hide behind it) that fed the beast of his criminal mind, turned out to be one of the mechanism for his redemption-without anonymity.
He describes reaching out to one of the FBI agents who had investigated and jailed him. When Brett reached out he simply wanted to explain there were no hard feelings and that this agent had been fair and done a great job brining him to justice.
He reached out and contacted the FBI agent through LinkedIn.
And within two (2) hours of Brett messaging the FBI agent on Linkedin, the agent had returned his message, and they began the friendship and mentorship that lasts through today.
Brett says had the FBI agent never responded to him, he is convinced that he would be back in prison. He also attributes much of his redemption to his wife and family.
He explains in our discussion that what drove him to commit crimes was the desire to show love brothers. When his wife was there at his lowest financial point, he realized that her love for him was because of who he was, and not because of what he could give her. This he identified was what drove him to capitalize on cybercrime in the past.
Once he acknowledged that he, himself, didn’t need to break the law simply for money, and that he had been driving the criminal activity to furnish a lifestyle he and his wife simply didn’t need.
And while this epiphany took a long time to be recognized by Brett, he does explain that it is what keeps him within the confines of the law still today. He describes one evening while at home watching a movie and it’s hitting him. He was done.
He would never go back to committing crime.
No matter what. No matter how hard things got, she would find a way to make a living within the confines of the law.
He has been living proof of that ever since that night.
Brett describes the night he had his epiphany in detail and with emotion. He attributes his change in life direction to be permanent, and while life has temptations, his family and friends in law enforcement have been there during those dark times to help guide him through.
Many will wonder, when struggle arises-does criminal activity erupt?
While he is self-deprecating and clearly does not give himself enough credit for making the right decisions day-in-and-day-out these days, he gives credit to his loved ones and law enforcement.
He describes a time, during the pandemic, when speaking engagements had slowed and money was tight, that he became scared that he thought of going back to crime. The result he knew would be 20 years in prison.
Rather than falling into old habits and leveraging the criminal part of his mind, he embraced vulnerability and sat down with his family and told him what his fears were. This evolution and willingness to be authentic is what drives Brett and keeps him on the right side of the law.
His family and mentors helped him through those tough times and everybody pitched in and supported each other as a family. That is something Brett never saw the child or as a young adult. He also gets great mentorship and guidance from several in law-enforcement including a retired FBI agent.
Today, Brett works as a security consultant and public speaker. He has worked with groups such as the FBI, Microsoft, eMailage, NextCaller,IDology, AARP, BBWest, TIB, The ACFE, The Card Not Present Group, The Identity Theft Resource Council, PRO, Universities, and many others.
Brett has been featured on numerous media outlets, most recently NBC, CNN Money, ArsTechnica, The Independent, and more.
Today he is considered a leading authority on internet crime, identity theft, and cybersecurity.
Brett speaks and consults around the world to help protect people and organizations from the type of person he used to be.
He has some of the most realistic examples of advice on how to protect ourselves, our families, and our organization’s brands. He has the practice experience and technical details to back up his best practices.
During our discussion Brett demonstrated how easy it is for individuals and organizations to be breached and socially engineered. He walks us through the “dead baby method”, and how quickly and easily it is to create a false identity and event change who you are in both the digital and physical world.
The top things that we discussed suspect best practices include the following:
- Situational Awareness
- PW Managers
- Enabling MFA the right Way
- Awareness Training
We discussed the proper methods for implementing each.
The lessons Brett learned through the rise and fall of a sensational criminal metamorphosis he shares through his dynamic personality. Had his mother not have ruined his free-ride to college for acting, and had Brett stayed a law-abiding citizen, he would have been an A-List Actor in our opinion.
When you listen and watch Brett you will see why.