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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Manchester pizzeria gets extortion threat payable in bitcoin

MANCHESTER – A Queen City pizza restaurant is among a number of pizzerias around the country to have been targeted by an extortion effort that sends threats through the U.S. mail but demands payment using the online currency bitcoin.

“At first you think it’s a joke,” said Michelle Doucette, general manager of 900 Degrees Neapolitan Pizza in Manchester, who received a threatening letter last week. “I actually had to ask one of the people who works here what a bitcoin is.” ...

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MANCHESTER – A Queen City pizza restaurant is among a number of pizzerias around the country to have been targeted by an extortion effort that sends threats through the U.S. mail but demands payment using the online currency bitcoin.

“At first you think it’s a joke,” said Michelle Doucette, general manager of 900 Degrees Neapolitan Pizza in Manchester, who received a threatening letter last week. “I actually had to ask one of the people who works here what a bitcoin is.”

The neatly printed, four-color letter demands a bitcoin – currently worth about $590 – as a “one-time monetary donation” by Aug. 15. Otherwise, it warns, the restaurant will face one or more problems that will cause “your business to be severely and irreparably harmed.”

These range from “telephone denial of service” and “mercury contamination” to false police reports about “terrorist training activity” and “OSHA
violations.”

Just in case things weren’t clear, the letter is headed “Notice of Extortion” in big red letters. It adds: “The selection process is random, and was not triggered by any event under your control.”

At least four pizzerias across the country have received similar letters, according to an article that Brian Krebs, a security consultant, posted on his website, KrebsOnSecurity.com.

“I guess they think pizza owners are rich,” Doucette said.

Krebs’ article is titled “2014: The Year Extortion Went Mainstream,” and says that many extortion efforts are taking advantage of relatively anonymous money transfers via cybercurrencies such as bitcoin, which are not controlled by any government or entity.

“Traditionally, the hardest part about extortion has been getting paid and getting away with the loot,” Krebs wrote.

“Prior to Bitcoin’s rise in popularity, the principal way that attackers extracted their ransom was by instructing victims to pay by wire transfer or reloadable prepaid debit cards. … But unlike Bitcoin payments, these methods of cashing out are easily traceable if cashed out within the United States.”

Doucette forwarded the letter to the New Hampshire attorney general’s office and has no intention of paying – even if she knew how to use bitcoin.

The extortion letter, perhaps anticipating such uncertainty, gives instructions for paying via an online site, known as a wallet, called Coinbase.

The letter includes a scannable QR code that presumably leads to Coinbase for payment, although Doucette wisely didn’t try scanning it.

“I was afraid if I scanned it … that somehow they would have my personal information,” she said.

Doucette posted the letter on her restaurant’s Facebook page and got responses from a pizzeria owner in California and one in Michigan that had received identical threats.

“It is oddly comforting knowing we weren’t the only ones, too,” Doucette wrote under the Facebook post. “Clearly the ringleader said ‘Hey, let’s do pizza restaurants today!’ ”

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).