I'm being blackmailed for bitcoin... by snail mail

A letter threatening to expose my imagined adultery reminds me that not all scammers are getting smarter.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
5 min read

Forget email phishing, I'm being scammed through a letter that showed up in my mailbox.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

I have a terrible secret. At least someone hopes I do. 

Last week I received a letter -- yes, those paper thingies with stamps from the post office -- warning me that the sender, someone called GreyMeat15, would release evidence (their emphasis) of the awful truth I'm keeping from my wife. If I don't pay my new friend $15,500 in bitcoin by Aug. 3, they'll humiliate my wife by telling her, her friends and family, and all of our neighbors about my "sordid details." 

Blackmail? Adultery? Apparently, a wild night for me isn't staying up until midnight. No, I'm actually living in a Danielle Steel novel.

In the internet age, there's no shortage of examples of how scammers are getting more sophisticated and malicious. Forget Nigerian princes begging for money and promises of jackpots from obscure lotteries. Today's scammers are impersonating the IRS and Microsoft tech support, setting up bogus charities after disasters and phishing for your passwords and personal information through seemingly convincing emails and text messages

My letter, though, is another matter. It reminds me that while some scammers are getting smarter, others are getting sloppier. 

Blackmail... but polite


I thought it was a boring form letter, but it turned out to be so much more.

Kent German/CNET

A quick scan of other news reports shows that the adultery blackmail scam has become common over the past few months. Think of it as the idiot cousin of the "sextortion" scam that threatens to expose your porn addiction. To get such a letter, I didn't have to open a sketchy link nor was my identity stolen. Rather, my name and address was likely taken from public records. (We bought a house a couple of months ago so some of my personal information was out there.) 

Of course, if the scammer had really being paying attention, they'd have noticed that that my "wife" is actually my husband. 

As blackmail schemes go -- or at least the one I've seen on Melrose Place -- my letter was surprisingly well-written and almost deferential. (You can read the full text below.) Despite being willing to "destroy my life" like Alexis destroying Blake Carrington, GreyMeat15 wasn't looking "to burn" me (how kind), but had "stumbled into my misadventures while woking a job around Oakland." Maybe it's the guy who replaced my sewer lateral last month?

Grey also said he or she is "not looking to break [my] bank" (again, how kind), but does "want to be compensated for the time put into investigating you." If I pay the "confidentiality fee," they'll keep it a secret, but I should be careful to be more discreet in the future (really, so thoughtful!).

The rest of the letter, which is printed on standard white paper straight from your office copy machine, goes into mind-numbingly detailed instructions (with 19 steps!) for purchasing the $15,500 in bitcoin and sending it to Grey's equally mind-numbing bitcoin address. One step even advises me to choose a trader with a high approval rating "to avoid getting scammed." As if I needed more proof that the entire concept of bitcoin wasn't exceedingly dull and annoying on its own. 

The envelope is equally innocuous, down to the plastic window for my address that made me think it was a bill. The only outside clues are an American flag stamp that was affixed irritatingly askew, a Nashville postmark and a postal meter number (31). Naturally, there's no return address.

A snail mail scam

Citing an ongoing investigation, the US Postal Inspection Service declined to tell me how widespread the scam is or how it may have originated. In an email, the agency only said that "these extortion letters have been sent across the country, targeting men specifically" and that anyone who receives one is encouraged to file a report on its website. Officer Johnna Watson of the Oakland Police Department referred me to Postal Inspection for all mail-related scams, and the press office for the FBI didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to news reports, other people receiving the letters were asked to pay as little as $2,000, which just goes to show that the cost of living in the Bay Area really is out of control. But no matter the ransom, Grey will be disappointed with my response. For the record, my misadventures these days consist of binge-watching Frasier episodes with a bottle of wine. I showed the letter to my husband and we laughed. Then I showed it to the dog and she laughed, too.

Even so, it makes me wonder how a nontargeted scam like this comes together. If you send out, maybe, 500 letters -- that's $245 in postage, with stamps at 49 cents a pop -- perhaps you could get at least one actual philanderer to pay up. Unlike a clever phishing scheme that takes you to a lookalike website to steal your password or identity, no one who isn't really having an extramarital affair could be duped into paying up. The whole thing is sophomoric and shitty, but it's also hysterical.

If you receive a blackmail bitcoin letter:

  • Report it to the US Postal Inspection Service either online or by calling 877-876-2455. You can also contact your local police department, though it may refer you to the post office.
  • Save the envelope and take note of any clues like the postmark or the stamp.
  • Though the scammer probably got your name and address through public records, it can't hurt to check whether there have been any recent data breaches that may have compromised your personal information. In California, for instance, the Attorney General's office keeps a list. Other states have similar lists.
  • Take some comfort in the fact that the one beneficiary of this scam may be our hard-working and irreplaceable postal service. As some readers have pointed out, though, the stamp for my letter could be counterfeit. Sadly, it's beyond my abilities to determine that, but its design does appear to be identical to a book of Forever stamps I have at home.
  • If you're unnerved because you're really cheating on your spouse, well, that's your problem. 

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