Decoder Ring

Decoder Ring: The Grifter

Brett Johnson ripped off hundreds of people. Now, he has regrets.

Illustration of a hand holding a pink credit or debit card with an ATM in the background. The background is money.
Benjamin Frisch

Decoder Ring is a podcast about cracking cultural mysteries. Every month, host Willa Paskin takes on a cultural question, object, idea, or habit—and speaks with experts, historians, and obsessives to try and figure out where it comes from, what it means, and why it matters.

Brett Johnson was a scammer, con man, and cybercriminal who defrauded people on the street, on eBay, on criminal web forums, within the justice system, and even inside the U.S. Secret Service. Today, Johnson operates on the right side of the law, helping companies to stop people like he used to be. The story of how he went from breaking the law to stopping lawbreakers is a wild one that involves scams, narrow escapes, Beanie Babies, and even a trip to Disney World. But what are we missing when we only focus on his story’s entertainment value? Decoder Ring explores Brett’s story, first by letting you enjoy it—and then deconstructing it, to see if we should.

Links and further reading on some of the things we discussed on the show:

Brett Johnson’s website

• Brett’s Ted Talk from Paris at L’Échappée Volée

• Kim Zetter, Wired: “Secret Service Operative Moonlights as Identity Thief

• Maria Konnikova’s book The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time.

• Rebecca Lavoie’s podcast Crime Writers On

Twitter: @willapaskin

This episode was written and reported by Willa Paskin and edited and produced by Benjamin Frisch.