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AARP seminar on Maui features former cyber conman now teaching how to avoid scams

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Former cyber conman Brett Johnson now teaches consumers how to protect themselves from scammers.

Deep within the Internet is the Dark Web, a space where criminals can anonymously buy and sell illegal goods and private information. It’s where identity thieves can easily and cheaply purchase our personal and financial information. 

It’s a place that Brett Johnson knows well. Law enforcement once called him “the godfather of the Dark Web” because he was one of the first criminals to buy and sell credit cards and personal information on the internet.

After serving seven years in prison, Johnson now helps law enforcement catch cyber criminals and works with AARP to teach consumers about protecting themselves and their families from scammers.

AARP will host an in-person workshop to go “Inside the Mind of a Con Artist” with Johnson on Aug. 18 at 9 a.m. at the Maui Beach Hotel, 170 W. Kaahumanu Ave. in Kahului.

Johnson will share what he knows about internet fraud schemes and con artists who work to steal your personal information.

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“I’m the guy that built what is today’s dark net market,” Johnson said. “Things like credit card cons and tax scams – I was on the ground floor of developing that stuff and figuring out how criminals should go about ripping other people off.”

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Seminars also will be held on Aug. 20 in O’ahu at the Ala Moana hotel and in Hilo on Aug. 19 at 9 a.m. at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel.

To register to come to the in-person events go to aarp.cvent.com/HIFraud. You can see and register for all of the events AARP offers by going to aarp.org/hi or the AARP Hawai`i Facebook page and click on Upcoming Events.

You can be of any age and do not have to be an AARP member to register. For those who prefer virtual seminars or if the in-person events reach capacity, Johnson’s presentation can also be viewed  on the AARP Hawai`i Facebook page and YouTube channel at about 9:45 a.m. on Aug. 20.

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Johnson credits the FBI and Secret Service agents who brought him down and put him behind bars with helping him find purpose in developing new ways to fight Dark Web crimes, rather than committing them. He says it takes a criminal mind to get inside the methods of a con artist.

“In the face of increasingly sophisticated con artists armed with new digital tools designed to fool us in to handing over our money, a lot of people may feel overwhelmed or have just given up,” said AARP Hawaiʻi State Director Kealiʻi Lopez. “Many consumers think it is inevitable that criminals will be able to exploit their credit at some point. But we are emphasizing that there are powerful things you can do to make sure that stolen data can’t be used against you.”

Both AARP and Johnson recommended consumers take these three steps to protect themselves:

Order a freeze: Put a security freeze in place with the three credit reporting bureaus so that no one can access your credit file or open a new credit account with your information. Thanks to a new federal law, it is now free to freeze and thaw your credit.  For a guide to the process, visit aarp.org/CreditFreeze.  

“It’s important to realize that your information is already out there,” Johnson said. “Your social security number and personal info is probably already available online and there’s nothing you can do to remove it. But what you can do is put a credit freeze in place to prevent criminals from accessing your file or opening new credit accounts in your name.”

Set up digital access and two-factor authentication: Set up online access to all of your financial accounts – bank accounts, credit cards, 401(k)s, etc. — and regularly monitor the accounts so you can stay up-to-date on all transactions and recognize any fraudulent activity that may occur.  

“Crooks have told us that people without online accounts are the perfect targets – especially children and seniors,” Lopez said. “It allows the criminals to set up online access themselves, and to even set passwords and identifying information locking people out of their own accounts. For online banking and shopping apps, opt for two-factor authentication. It not only requires your password to log in but also a one-time code sent to your mobile device to prove it’s really you.”

Use separate passwords: Make sure you use unique passwords for each of your online accounts. That way, if one account is hacked, it does not put your other accounts at risk. A good way to manage all of those unique passwords is to use a digital password manager. These services keep all your passwords secure and help you create different, strong passwords for each of your online accounts.  

“When it comes to passwords, people are lazy and they tend to use the same passwords for multiple accounts,” Johnson said.  “When a criminal is able to get you to give up your password for what seems like an innocuous site like your Netflix or HULU account, they’ll find that you used the very same password on your more important credit card and banking accounts.”

For more information on how to protect yourself from scams and fraud, visit www.aarp.org/fraudwatchnetowk. The AARP Fraud Watch Network launched in 2013 as a free resource for people of all ages. Consumers may sign up for “Watchdog Alert” emails that deliver information about scams, or call a free helpline at 877-908-3360 to speak with volunteers trained in fraud counseling. The Fraud Watch Network website provides information about fraud and scams, prevention tips from experts, and an interactive scam-tracking map.

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