How One Man Easily Tricked High-Profile People Online Using False Identities

Nov 13, 2017
Originally published on November 13, 2017 8:46 pm
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ELISE HU, HOST:

From the White House homeland security adviser to Jared Kushner's private lawyer, many people connected to the White House have exchanged personal emails with an English web designer named James Linton. To be clear, they didn't know they were corresponding with James Linton. He always pretended to be someone else, someone in their inner circle. Linton's pranks - some would call them scams - serve as a cautionary tale to really anyone who uses email. I first asked James Linton about one of his best-known targets, former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci.

JAMES LINTON: Yeah, I think with Anthony Scaramucci it was probably his first week in the job. He seemed like a very good target. He seemed like somebody that would be interesting to kind of interact with. So I set up an account as Reince Priebus.

HU: Reince Priebus, the former White House chief of staff.

LINTON: Yeah, exactly, because they had a bit of an axe to grind with each other.

HU: So you emailed Anthony Scaramucci as Reince Priebus?

LINTON: Yes, and as Jon Huntsman Jr., the Russian envoy for America. So as I was pushing him as Priebus, he was actually contacting Huntsman Jr. for a bit of support. And that was me, too. So it was a bit of a funny situation to be in.

HU: Just for some clarity, can you explain to us how this operation worked, how you were able to end up in email exchanges with newsmakers?

LINTON: I mean, it was I guess relatively straightforward. I'd select the person who I was trying to target, I guess, for want of a better phrase, and then deciding if I could get hold of the email address easily enough would be a big factor. If I thought I could, then I'd think about who I could be, which character I could adopt which would be friendly enough to them that they would kind of answer back quite candidly. And then it was just going online, setting up a quick email address. Yeah, it's really not that tricky.

HU: So you'd go online, set up an email address, and say that - you know, enter in the name field first name, last name of a famous person.

LINTON: Yeah, Jared Kushner, say...

HU: OK.

LINTON: ...Or - yeah. Yeah. It really was that easy.

HU: And you mentioned that you were enjoying it. You call these folks targets. Did your conscience never bother you, though, that you were pretending to be other people and getting away with this sort of prank or scam?

LINTON: I guess, I mean, with hindsight there were ones that maybe went a little bit further than I maybe would have done if it'd been completely measured. But this kind of thing had grown so organically anyway, I kind of just had to take a feel for it at each turn and just hope that it would kind of be sort of morally and ethically sound in my head, I guess, if not everybody else's.

HU: We should point out, of course, that pretending to be someone else is obviously illegal in many jurisdictions. And at the very least, you could find yourself the target of a civil lawsuit. So why'd you do it?

LINTON: I don't - I mean, originally, it was driven by a desire to get even, I guess, with the CEO of Barclays bank, who I felt I had a bit of a personal grievance with. And then after that it just kind of naturally went on from there. I thought, it can't be this easy at every bank, so I did quite a few banks, one after the other. And then natural kind of progression just seemed to be to try the White House. I presumed that would be the most secure place going into. And that wasn't the case.

HU: Have you felt any consequences from doing this?

LINTON: No, not really. No, nobody's - the White House has never certainly contacted me in any way, shape or form. I thought they maybe wanted to just to ask a few questions regarding security, but I think that their egos are probably a bit big for that. And then I've never heard from any solicitor or enforcement agency ever.

HU: Do you think there's any security takeaways from what you were able to do?

LINTON: Just be a little bit more aware of how in the zone you get when you're in email. Don't always take it for read that the name you see there is the name that's the person you're speaking to.

HU: James, thanks.

LINTON: OK, thank you.

HU: That's James Linton, who managed to stay anonymous until a few weeks ago, when a British tabloid revealed his identity. Now, he says, he's hung up his keyboard good.

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