Brett Johnson: US Most Wanted Cybercriminal | Lex Fridman Podcast #272 | Summary and Q&A

March 27, 2022
Lex Fridman Podcast
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Brett Johnson: US Most Wanted Cybercriminal | Lex Fridman Podcast #272


A former cybercriminal shares his journey from a life of crime to redemption, discussing his involvement in organized cybercrime, manipulation tactics, and the potential dangers of online deception.

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Questions & Answers

Q: How did Brett Johnson's career in cybercrime begin?

Brett Johnson's life of crime started at a young age due to his exposure to fraud and criminal activities in his family environment in Eastern Kentucky. He engaged in shoplifting, theft, and eventually cybercrime as a means to an end.

Q: What is the concept of social engineering in cybercrime?

Social engineering is a tactic used by cybercriminals to exploit human psychology and manipulate individuals into divulging sensitive information or performing certain actions. It involves establishing trust and manipulating emotions to deceive victims for personal gain.

Q: Can you provide an example of a despicable cybercrime committed by Brett Johnson?

One example is when Johnson targeted a woman selling her valuable coin collection to fund a new roof for her home. He posed as a legitimate buyer, gained her trust, and then defrauded her, showing a complete lack of empathy for her personal struggles.

Q: What are the potential dangers of phishing attacks?

Phishing attacks involve sending fraudulent emails or messages to trick individuals into revealing sensitive information, such as login credentials or financial data. These attacks can lead to identity theft, financial loss, and compromise of personal or corporate data.

Q: How did Brett Johnson's career in cybercrime begin?

Brett Johnson's life of crime started at a young age due to his exposure to fraud and criminal activities in his family environment in Eastern Kentucky. He engaged in shoplifting, theft, and eventually cybercrime as a means to an end.

More Insights

  • Cybercriminals often lack empathy for their victims, focusing solely on their personal gain.

  • Social engineering plays a central role in cybercrime, exploiting human trust, emotions, and weaknesses for manipulation.

  • Cybercrime can have devastating consequences, both financially and emotionally, for victims.

  • The prevalence of online deception, including phishing attacks and fake news, poses significant risks to individual and societal trust in the digital realm.

  • The ability to establish a consensus on truth and navigate the complex landscape of information is crucial for maintaining a stable and secure online environment.


This conversation is with Brett Johnson, a former cyber criminal who was once on the US most wanted list and built the first organized cyber crime community called Shadow Crew. He talks about his upbringing in a dysfunctional family, his introduction to crime at a young age, and his life as a cyber criminal involved in various scams and frauds. While he admits to being a despicable person at that time, he now reflects on his past actions and aims to help others understand and fight cyber crime.

Questions & Answers

Q: How did Brett Johnson's career as a cyber criminal begin?

Brett's life of crime began when he was just 10 years old. Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, where fraud and scams were prevalent, his parents were involved in various criminal activities. His parents' constant abuse and manipulations shaped his early interaction with crime, starting with stealing food and later participating in more sophisticated fraudulent activities.

Q: Does Brett have any love for his abusive mother?

Despite the abuse he endured from his mother, Brett still loves her. However, he has set a boundary with her and refuses to communicate until she admits her abuse and takes responsibility for her actions. He acknowledges that love doesn't excuse or justify the harm she caused.

Q: How did Brett's father handle the abuse from his mother?

Brett's father, who came from a good family, chose to tolerate the abuse to keep their family intact. It took him several years to come to terms with the abuse and understand the need to separate from Brett's mother. Brett's father, now in ill health, has a nonchalant attitude towards death, accepting it as inevitable.

Q: Can Brett share some despicable stories from his cyber criminal past?

Brett engaged in various criminal activities during his cyber criminal career. One notable story involves defrauding a woman on eBay by convincing her to send her valuable coin collection under false pretenses. He was aware that the collection was her only means of putting a roof over her family's head, but he felt no remorse and prioritized his own needs over those of his victims.

Q: How did Brett become skilled in social engineering?

Brett's proficiency in social engineering can be traced back to his childhood, where he had to understand his abusive parents' behaviors to survive. This understanding later translated into manipulation as he engaged in cyber criminal activities. Trust is a central element in social engineering, and cyber criminals exploit this by leveraging technology tools and storytelling to build trust with their victims.

Q: Can Brett explain the process of establishing trust with victims?

Trust is established through a combination of technology tools and social engineering in the online world. Cyber criminals exploit the inherent trust people have in their devices, such as their phones or laptops, as well as manipulate various factors like phone numbers, IP addresses, and online personas. By laying a foundation of trust, cyber criminals can then emotionally manipulate their victims and compel them to act against their better judgment.

Q: How does Brett feel about his past actions as a cyber criminal?

Brett acknowledges his past actions as despicable and devoid of empathy for his victims. At the time, he prioritized his own needs and justifications. However, he now reflects on his past with remorse, seeking to understand and learn from his mistakes. He aims to help others fight cyber crime and prevent them from going down a similar path.

Q: What impact did meeting a teacher have on Brett's life?

Meeting his high school teacher Carol Combs had a profound impact on Brett's life. Being the first decent person he encountered, she became a surrogate mother figure to him. Through her support, he thrived academically and artistically, becoming a top performer in the state. She played a vital role in reshaping his self-image and showing him a different path.

Q: How does Brett view his own responsibility and redemption?

Brett takes responsibility for his choices as an adult while acknowledging that his challenging childhood environment influenced the direction he took. He believes that understanding the reasons behind his actions is essential, but it doesn't excuse the harm he caused. He believes in personal accountability and redemption, emphasizing the importance of personal growth and avoiding destructive paths.

Q: Can Brett share more about his involvement in illegal coal mining?

Brett's family engaged in illegal coal mining, also known as "wildcatting" or mining without proper permits. By bypassing regulations and permits, they avoided the associated costs but put themselves at risk for legal repercussions. Brett learned how to operate the mining equipment and participated in the process, gaining valuable knowledge and skills.

Q: Can Brett discuss his experience with charity fraud?

Brett engaged in various fraudulent activities, including charity fraud. He would collect money from unsuspecting people under the guise of supporting homeless shelters, abused women, or children. He would either stand on the roadside with a donation bucket or set up his own charity organization, employing telemarketing tactics to defraud individuals. Trust was a crucial factor in these scams, with perpetrators leveraging people's compassion and willingness to help.


Brett Johnson's journey as a cyber criminal highlights the complex interplay between personal circumstances, trauma, and criminal behavior. His early exposure to abuse and manipulation shaped his inclination towards fraud and criminal activities. The ability to establish trust through social engineering, coupled with technological tools, allowed him to exploit victims and prioritize his own needs. However, Brett now reflects on his past with remorse and seeks redemption by helping others understand and fight cyber crime. Through his story, we are reminded of the importance of personal accountability and the potential for growth and transformation in even the darkest of circumstances.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Brett Johnson, a former cybercriminal, reveals his early exposure to fraud and criminal activities in his upbringing in Eastern Kentucky.

  • He built the first organized cybercrime community called Shadow Crew, which paved the way for today's dark net and dark web markets.

  • Johnson discusses his involvement in various cyber crimes, including phishing attacks, counterfeit cashier's checks, and theft of personal information.

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