On Tuesday, a bright spot appeared in this dark, cruel world when CNN first reported that an anonymous mischief maker had tricked multiple White House officials into responding to prank emails.
The Email Prankster, as he’s branded himself, isn’t worried about getting in legal trouble, he told The Outline in an interview Thursday. He duped several high profile targets earlier this year, including Barclay’s CEO Jes Staley, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, and Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat, and was not contacted by law enforcement.
He was, however, suspended from his job this morning. His company, which knew about the banker pranks, suspected he was involved in this latest round of hoaxes and opened an investigation. “I think they'll get me on misuse of IT,” the prankster said. “I did send an email to the White House from my work email address because I forgot to switch the email account over in the drop down.”
It’s unclear if the prankster did anything illegal. He did no spoofing or hacking, and lawyers we spoke to in the U.S. and U.K. said it would be difficult to make a criminal case against him. The prankster merely registered addresses that looked semi-legitimate, such as email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, made sure his character’s name would show up in the “From” field, and thought up an intriguing subject line. He registered email addresses in the names of senior advisor Jared Kushner, Ambassador-to-Russia designate Jon Huntsman, former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Donald Trump Jr., and Eric Trump, and had them email various White House staff.
The highlight of these pranks was an exchange between the fake Reince Priebus, whose real counterpart had just been ousted, and then-White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci. The exchange, a testy back-and-forth that played on the real rivalry between the two men, ended with Scaramucci telling the person he thought was Priebus to, “Read Shakespeare. Particularly Othello.” Scaramucci was ousted the next day, and The Washington Post called the prank “a final indignity.”
“I’ve got loads of little tricks now.”
The prank emails are a pleasure to read. The Email Prankster likes to walk his targets as close to the line of of absurdity as possible without alerting them to the sham. In June, he pretended to be Tesco chairman John Allan, telling the embattled grocery chain’s CEO Alan Stewart a long story about camping in the Everglades and harvesting emu eggs. Earlier this summer, he pretended to be U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, telling Conservative Party politician Lord Tebbit “Go fuck yourself, I will be PM,” and then, the next day, “I humbly apologize for losing my temper yesterday. It's a hard reality for me to face, that I will never be leader,” which prompted Lord Tebbit to reply, confessing: “I had longer than you to get used to the idea [that] I would never be PM, but it still hurts.”
Writing as Jared Kushner late last month, he invited Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert to a party. “Tom, we are arranging a bit of a soirée towards the end of August,” the fake Kushner wrote. “It would be great if you could make it, I promise food of at least comparible (sic) quality to that which we ate in Iraq. Should be a great evening.” Bossert wrote back: “Thanks, Jared. With a promise like that, I can't refuse. Also, if you ever need it, my personal email is [redacted].”
The exchange with Scaramucci became a news item organically. Scaramucci’s friend, Arthur Schwartz, who acted as Scaramucci’s assistant and attack dog during the former banker’s ten-day stint in office, somehow got ahold of the fake Priebus address. Schwartz then reached out to fake Priebus to apologize for a tweet insinuating that real Priebus was having an affair. (Needless to say, the Email Prankster was very delighted to see real people emailing his fake account unprompted.) Schwartz forwarded that exchange to CNN’s Jake Tapper as evidence that he had apologized to Priebus, but Tapper noticed that the email was coming from a free mail.com address. Tapper emailed the Email Prankster to find out what was going on, and CNN had a story. “It was a fun morning,” the Email Prankster told The Outline.
The Email Prankster tweets under the handle @SINON_REBORN, a reference to the Greek who warrior who convinced the Trojans to accept a giant horse as a gift. He is a 38-year-old web designer living in the U.K. with his partner and three cats — or so he told The Outline in a phone interview. He’s a textbook troll, in that his one goal is to get a response — anything — out of his victims, and then pile up as many responses as possible before they suss out the scam or get tired of replying. He has to be quick on his feet, he said, especially when hoaxing bank executives. “You kind of have to act quite fast, because they’ll either stop replying or they’ll rumble it pretty quickly,” he said. “So you’ve got a very small operating window.”
He has been in business as Email Prankster since May, when he hoodwinked Barclay’s CEO Jes Staley. That prank was retribution for the way the bank had treated him, he said. He has struggled with gambling addiction and debt in the past, and the bank wouldn’t give him a loan — until he discovered the “pre-approved loans” tab in the Barclay’s app. In a depressed period after his partner was admitted to the hospital, he borrowed almost $25,000 and gambled it away.
Barclay’s refused to give him any relief on the debt, he said, and also denied that he had told them about his gambling problem. He found Staley’s email address and sent a detailed, personal appeal, describing his partner’s sickness and his history of mental health issues, but the CEO was unmoved. “I guess it was a bit of a modern reinterpretation of chaining myself to Jes Staley’s gates, because I couldn’t really go to his house,” he said. He gave up, but told Staley he would “be back” on the day of the company’s Annual General Meeting about five months later.
“I guess I decided to make a point that the little man can be heard out over this boss in his ivory tower,” the Prankster said. “He had the ability to just ignore me, but I knew I had a particular party trick, and I was obviously going to roll it out.”
The meeting day came and Staley was thrashed by shareholders for alleged regulatory infractions. Afterward, he received a supportive message purportedly from the bank’s chairman, John McFarlane, which he appreciated so much that he sent some heartfelt replies in return. “Thanks for sharing the foxhole,” Staley wrote to fake McFarlane.
HOT OFF THE INBOX: Harvey Schwartz chatting to Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs.— EMAIL PRANKSTER (@SINON_REBORN) June 11, 2017
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. pic.twitter.com/9DvV4AcDJs
The exchange, which included a ridiculous fake poem that was actually a veiled reference to Staley’s alleged crimes, was covered in all the U.K. media. The subject line of the email — “The fool doth think he is wise” — didn’t make Staley look much better. Subsequently, Barclay’s improved its email security.
“It just wouldn’t be interesting if it was like, ‘Could you bring home a pint of milk?’ It has to push the boundaries of sensibility,” the Email Prankster told The Outline. “I try and get it to go weird pretty fast.”
Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney. Apparently is not up for the type of party I like to throw. pic.twitter.com/6Iam49A5rA— EMAIL PRANKSTER (@SINON_REBORN) May 23, 2017
The Prankster now wants to start a magazine about his exploits. He launched a Patreon campaign, promising his patrons a newsletter and magazine filled with new pranks, cartoons, security tips, and more. He spoke to The Outline about his motives and techniques.
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Who are you?
Who am I? Um… that’s a very direct question, isn’t it? Well, it’s going to be constrained by how much I can say really... By day, I design websites basically. I’ve done that for about 18 years now.
You seem to have a talent for prank emails.
It kind of snuck up on me. It’s been a sort of gradual progression. I can’t remember the first one I ever did. It was probably about four years ago, maybe a little bit longer than that… I set up an email address being the CEO of the company that we work for and sent [a new coworker] a quite a fairly long and descriptive email about how he’d been selected to go up to Israel and represent the company in some inter-company games, for these swimming competitions, and all these other things. And he fell for it, hook, line and sinker.
Luckily I managed to kind of pass it off as just kind of an initiation prank. I don’t think my boss realized that I had actually set up an email address in his name, I think he thought I’d sent it from my normal account.
Then if I was powerless or if I felt my partner was powerless with the situations at work and things like that, I’d always seek out to get the email address of the person highest up the chain that we could deal with and send them — not an emotional correspondence but one that really cuts to the nitty gritty of it and hopefully appeals to their sort of human nature. We’ve gotten, a lot of the time, a lot of good responses from it.
Can you talk about the Email Prankster’s first official target, Barclay’s CEO Jes Staley? That was the first time you made the news. How did that one go down?
I’d contacted Jes Staley a few times before. I even said I’d be back on the night of their AGM [Annual General Meeting with shareholders]. But I completely forgot about it.
I think it was probably about 9 o’clock at night, I was just lying on my bed watching a documentary about sharks and I just opened up my app and saw that the AGM had finished that night. And I was like, ‘oh shit, I said I’d be back.’ So I quickly had a little read of a news article about the AGM… so I thought ‘right, I’ll set myself off as the chairman.’
I didn’t know who it was at the time, so I Googled it and found out it was John McFarlane. Before I knew it I had a Gmail account set up in his name. Before I knew it I just kind of fired it off and then sat back quietly. Pretty quickly the phone binged and I picked it up, I had the preview on my lock screen, and I could see he’d written quite a bit. I thought, bloody hell, that doesn’t look like he’s saying “who is this,” this looks like he genuinely believes it.
It seems like the subject line is really important.
Definitely. I’ve also had a few that haven’t worked for me, I’ve got no reply so I can’t tell how they were taken in or how they were received or what rumbled it, was it an IT system or just them being ultra careful. But yeah, keeping it short and sweet tends to be the best way.
No Stephen Bird of Citibank, it's not actually the real Chairman Michael O'Neill ...follow on from Goldman Sachs prank. pic.twitter.com/GiwSNTxIGD— EMAIL PRANKSTER (@SINON_REBORN) June 12, 2017
I’ve got things going in my favor, which is they’ve seen the name of a person they know. The minute I decide on which character I’m going to be and who I’m going to send an email to, I’ll stick them both into Google, hit news as the filter and see if there are any stories from the last two days or the last week, and it gives a bit of common ground. A bit like Jared Kushner and Tom Bossert, how they’d both been to Iraq — that seemed to be quite a good point of reference to put in.
I try and get it to go weird pretty fast. It’s more fun then. I wouldn’t do it unless I found some amusement.
I think it found widespread amusement, especially the recent pranks that ensnared White House officials.
I initially thought they’d have the kind of cohesion at the White House that you have at most businesses, you know, where everyone would kind of talk to each other. But there it seems like everyone is a kind of, lone soldier just kind of doing their own thing, not really knowing what everyone is doing.
It wasn’t even hard to find their email addresses. I think they must use a convention of the White House office’s naming because it’s traditional. Going back years there’s instances of it all over the internet. It should be, I don’t know, supergirl264.com or something that nobody’s going to guess, but instead it’s who.eop.gov, and it’s never changed, so all you’ve got to do is know what somebody’s name is and you can contact them. It just seems crazy.
I’ve seen it a few places, “hacker.” I’ve never done anything technically advanced in the lightest. I can barely operate our TV remote. It’s more psychology than anything, figure out what to say and when to say it.
Did you try to imitate the way they talk? Like, did you think that Jared Kushner was the type of guy who would say the word soirée?
By that stage, I was probably getting a bit cocky, so I was probably allowing the caricature I wanted to play the part rather than thinking what would he say most likely or what would be most realistic. I could see in my head the line of what would be completely unbelievable, the safe line, and I wanted it to be in the middle of those two, I guess. That seemed to be the best way forward. It was just to capitalize on what could be the best possible response. If I could only get two replies or one reply, I wanted to make it count. So I played a slightly more risky game by starting off a bit further into the field.
I don’t think he would say “soirée” though.
It seems like you really care about animals and hate trophy hunting, and that was part of the motivation for targeting Eric Trump. And you got him by sending him a link to a hunting rifle that looked like it came from his brother, Don Trump Jr.
I just got this reply off him saying, “Is that you?” I was a bit taken aback by it. Is he trying to double it back on me? I just thought well, I’m just going to reply back saying yes. And he sent another one back almost like “Phew, I didn’t want to click on the link.”
The only reason he fell off the line I think was I pushed it a bit too far. I said, “What’s the plan?” Well, I was the older brother. I should have been the one with the plan. So that was misjudged on my part. But I recognized that afterward and I was like, fair play.
Other people said I didn’t get him, but, in my eyes I did.
Do you think you’re getting better? You’re honing your skill?
Yeah definitely. I’ve got loads of little tricks now. I get more relaxed about it as well. It’s not the be-all and end-all that I get a reply, because I know maybe the next one that I try will. I guess that’s the gambling nature. If you’ve had 15 reds in a row on roulette, you’re pretty convinced black’s going to come up after that.
You tweeted after you pranked Staley that you were facing the “second album problem,” of having to follow up on a big success. How do you feel about that now?
I remember writing that at the time and thinking, I’ve kind of done something. It felt like I had achieved something, that I had made a point that I needed to make. Nobody got hurt. It was egg on someone’s face. I don’t think he was going to lose sleep over it. In fact I’m sure it was quoted in the papers the next day that he laughed it off. I still owe him twenty-five grand or whatever, but I’ve had a bit of a laugh at him.
Then I thought, I did kind of enjoy it. So maybe I’ll try another one.
Has anyone from the White House contacted you?
No. If they contact me and say who are you, I’ll tell them instantly. I’ve got nothing to hide. It just seems logical that they wouldn’t want me to be in a courtroom somewhere saying how ridiculously easy it was to find all their contact addresses and invite them to a party.
I’m trying to keep it as good natured as it can be anyway. People would say I had a bit of a go at Scaramucci but it felt like he needed it at the time.
Going forward, I’m even going to try to use made-up characters rather than being actual people to make it a little bit more legal. We’ll see. There’s lots of options. This is early days.