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Identity thief shares secrets with Spokane area retirees looking to avoid cybercrime

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 30, 2019

Former con man Brett Johnson speaks  about cybercrime Wednesday at the CenterPlace Regional Event Center in Spokane Valley. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Former con man Brett Johnson speaks about cybercrime Wednesday at the CenterPlace Regional Event Center in Spokane Valley. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A group of 250 AARP members sat attentively Wednesday listening to a convicted cybercriminal who told them how to avoid identity theft.

That con man was Brett Johnson, who put his “America’s Most Wanted” photo up on the screen before telling the audience how he began a life of crime.

Johnson grew up with a con-artist mother and quickly went down the same path. He shoplifted for the first time at the age of 10.

He was one of the early identity thieves, stealing personal information and credit card numbers, and he created ShadowCrew, the first website on the so-called darknet to connect online criminals. People associated with the site were arrested across the globe, even making the cover of Forbes, but Johnson eluded authorities for months before he eventually was arrested on 39 felony charges.

The 49-year-old has spent more than seven years incarcerated during multiple prison stints and even escaped once, but he now works with law enforcement agencies and speaks to audiences across the country about how they can avoid hackers like himself.

Speaking to a group of AARP members, as he did at the CenterPlace Regional Event Center in Spokane Valley on Wednesday, is something new for Johnson, though.

“This is really the first senior-citizen presentation I’ve given really,” Johnson said. “A lot of senior citizens, because they didn’t grow up in the tech environment, they don’t really understand the tech.”

The most vulnerable demographics to internet fraud are children and the elderly, Johnson said.

Speaking directly to the consumer is a way for Johnson to prevent the crimes he perpetrated for years from happening to others.

“I have to do something,” he said.

A huge part of avoiding identity theft or internet fraud is knowing where you fit on the “cybercrime spectrum,” Johnson said.

“For example, 86% of phone fraud happens to senior citizens,” Johnson said.

Different types of fraud happen to different people, he explained.

Many senior citizens don’t register accounts they make in person online, but those companies and organizations still use their account data in an online system.

For example, Johnson said, someone can open a bank account and do everything in paper or in person at the bank but their account information is still being used to process transactions online, even if they don’t sign up for online banking.

A criminal can then create an online login for that person. And since the account’s owner was not the first person to register online for that bank account, it’s difficult for the person being victimized to prove the identity theft is not them, Johnson explained.

“What people don’t understand is even if they’re not using the internet, their identity is still on the internet,” Johnson said.

Johnson gave attendees tips about small things they can do to avoid internet criminals, such as using a password manager, registering all accounts online, changing the default password on devices like Wi-Fi modems and reporting fraud to law enforcement.

“You’re basically talking to either victims or potential victims,” Johnson said. “The big thing becomes you don’t want the victim to feel guilty about them being a victim, because that typically is what happens.”

That is a huge part of why people don’t report fraud to law enforcement, Johnson said.

The AARP Fraud Watch Network brought Johnson to Spokane and drew a strong demand from retirees. In addition to the 250 who attended Wednesday’s talk, over 100 people were on the waitlist.

AARP Washington is distributing a short video summarizing Johnson’s message on DVD to those who request it on their website.

Attendee Patrice McLean hoped to gain information about how to protect herself and others by attending the presentation.

“I belong to two clubs and centers and so I hear all the talk,” McLean said. “Now I’m a little more knowledgeable and someone they can talk to.”

She was surprised that “less activity on the computer doesn’t make you less attackable.”

Fellow attendee Michael Fuller had never attended an AARP event before, but this one piqued the former elementary school teacher’s interest.

He was impressed with Johnson’s willingness to share his past mistakes.

“To be able to divulge your life, I’m not sure I could do that,” Fuller said.

Fuller said he has received multiple scam calls recently that he doesn’t answer and this brought those instances to the forefront.

“I thought the energy was great,” Fuller said. “Everyone was an active listener in their own way, because you’re thinking about how it can affect you.”

After accepting responsibility for his own crimes,

Johnson, who has accepted responsibility for his own crimes, said it is important to stress that it’s not the victim’s fault when it comes to cybercrime.

“It’s not your fault that someone stole from you or victimized you,” Johnson said. “It’s their fault.”

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