Call it the guilty-conscience scam.
“I know about the secret you are keeping from your wife and everyone else,” the snail-mail letter begins. “More importantly, I have evidence of what you have been hiding.”
It goes on to say “it is just your bad luck that I stumbled across your misadventures while working a job around Los Angeles. 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.”
Option 1: Ignore the letter and the aforementioned evidence will be sent to your wife, her friends, her family members and your neighbors.
Option 2: Pay a “confidentiality fee” of $8,600 in bitcoin and “your secret remains your secret.”
There are a few interesting things happening here. First, the entire racket is predicated on these letters being received by guys who actually are cheating on their wives. It’s a sad commentary on our society that this isn’t an unreasonable gamble on the scammer’s part.
Second, the fraud involves untraceable bitcoin as the method of payment, a more sophisticated alternative to traditional techniques such as wiring money and using prepaid debit cards.
Another intriguing twist, said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for San Diego’s Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, is that the scammer is investing in actual postage, rather than much-cheaper email.
“It makes it seem more legitimate,” he told me. “And it tells you that there’s definitely money to be made if the letters find their way into the right hands.”
As it happens, this particular letter did not. It arrived at my house a few days ago.
Monumentally monogamous, I immediately shared the letter with my wife and we had a good laugh. Then I looked closer and appreciated the effort the scammer had gone to.
Aside from obtaining my name and home address, the letter itself was personalized throughout in a very persuasive fashion. It mentioned that the sender had stumbled onto evidence of my amorous misdeeds “while working a job around Los Angeles.”
Lower down, the letter addresses me by name and is specific in its threat that all our neighbors would receive the evidence if I don’t come across with some cash. It mentions my street name.
“It’s not very difficult to get this information,” Stephens said. “The data is out there. But I wonder if they’re using some sort of artificial-intelligence software to customize each letter.”
It’s also impressive how the scammer, who identifies himself as “SwiftDash33,” strives to appear reasonable, even though he’s, you know, committing a crime. (I know, I know: It could be a woman. The thing just feels like it’s from a guy.)
“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,” the letter says.
“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.”
The envelope has a Nashville postmark and no return address. The letter provides a long string of characters that apparently constitutes a bitcoin address.
Because relatively few people have experience with the digital currency, the letter includes a “how-to guide” for converting real money into virtual money and transferring it to God-knows-where.
Samantha Shero, an FBI spokeswoman, said investigators are aware of the scam.
“There are variations saying different things and asking for different amounts,” she said. “It’s an extortion thing.”
Shero acknowledged that the demand for payment in bitcoin is a relatively new wrinkle, but said use of digital currencies “is growing in popularity” among con artists.
A spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department said this was a new one for them.
My hunch is that the scam is geographic. It wouldn’t be hard to obtain a mailing list or real-estate information for a particular ZIP Code — say, one with generally healthy income levels.
Then you’d blanket the area with hundreds of letters and hope some of them end up with guys who are really having affairs and are well-to-do enough to figure $8,600 isn’t too much to buy peace of mind.
“All things considered,” said Stephens at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, “it seems like there’s a good chance you could make some money.”
In the first two months of this year alone, consumers lost more than half a billion dollars to cryptocurrency-related scams, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
“Consumers will lose more than $3 billion by the end of 2018,” Andrew Smith, director of the agency’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said at a conference last month.
The FTC recently launched a crackdown on “chain referral” schemes involving cryptocurrencies. Like a Ponzi scheme, the alleged racket involves investing in a virtual currency and then persuading others to join the plan.
If you receive an I-know-you’re-cheating-on-your-wife letter, the smartest thing to do is ignore it — and, yes, that advice also applies to guys who really are hiking the Appalachian Trail, as they say.
Remember, once you transfer cash in the form of bitcoin or any other digital currency, it’s gone, never to be seen again.
Juliana Gruenwald, an FTC spokeswoman, said consumers should always be wary of letters or emails like this.
“Whatever the payment type demanded — bitcoin, cash or gift cards — it’s most likely a criminal extortion attempt, and we recommend consumers contact local law enforcement for assistance,” she said.
The letter to me said I had nine days to come across with the $8,600.
“The clock is ticking, David,” it warned.