The price of Monero was rising, and it was bucking the trend by doing so, most other important cryptocurrencies went sideways or even trended down. The XMR/USD rate was already 20% higher than a month ago. Nobody knew why, but of course people had their theories. My own one: Somebody was accumulating, converting sizable amounts into XMR, and despite being careful and methodical wasn't able to do so without moving a quite small and not very liquid market. Well, I finally said to myself, sooner or later this had to happen, and decided not to care too much about it.
Soon afterwards I received a personal message on Reddit where I use to hang around in the Monero subreddit. Somebody wanted to use encrypted e-mail with me, revealed their public PGP key and were asking for my own public key. The message did not contain much more and just mentioned that they tried to hire a Monero dev for some private work. First I hesitated, but then my curiosity won and I answered. It did not take long for the first e-mail to arrive.
Subject: We need a good Monero multisig solution
Thank you for establishing contact through encrypted e-mail. Please keep this e-mail and any that may follow strictly private and confidential.
A short introduction: I am the current treasurer of the UGLE, the United Grand Lodge of England, the biggest Freemason lodge in Europe. You find more info about us on our website https://www.ugle.org.uk/. Yes, we have an official website, and as so much misinformation about freemasonry is swirling around, I encourage you to really take a look.
I write you because of your earlier work for making Monero multisig transactions easier to use. We want to hire a Monero dev that makes your solution even more solid. It now uses PyBitmessage as a third-party app for communication, and we would like to get rid of that with the help of an implementation of the Bitmessage protocol in C++ in the Monero wallet code, so wallets can directly communicate with each other in a secure way.
The background: We are seriously interested to start using Monero for some of the financial transactions of our lodge, and as substantial sums would be involved, we intend to use multisig so no single person alone has full control over the funds. Thus our interest in a private and more robust version of your system.
If you can imagine to work for us please write back with a rough estimate how long it would take to build something like that and let us know your ideas about payment.
After reading this I had to laugh. So after Nigerian princes, government officials from places like Syria, and Powerball winners from the US wanting to just throw their money away again, it now was the Freemasons? Only the Illuminati and the Knights Templar still missing!
But on the other hand that story itself was not too dumb. The Freemasons are still pretty secretive as far as some aspects of their organization and their rites are concerned, so if they wanted to use a cryptocurrency, they really could do worse than choosing Monero with its very strong privacy.
I decided to play along for the time being and answered the mail.
Subject: Re: We need a good Monero multisig solution
That sounds all very interesting, but also quite improbable, frankly. Maybe first we can firmly establish somehow that you are who you claim to be. I have no need for pranks, and no desire to work for scammers, I hope you understand. Any good idea how to proceed to establish trust?
Subject: Re: We need a good Monero multisig solution
I expected nothing less, of course it's good to be careful.
I prepared a login for you on our intranet. Please go to https://www.ugle.org.uk/intranet and log in with "rbrunner7" as user name and "multisig" as password. Then locate the page that lists the public PGP keys of various important members of the lodge. You will find the key that I am using there.
Well, what can I say, I was in trouble now. Decision time. All the info he gave me checked out. Mailing with a high-ranking Freemason, who would have thought.
After a few more mails back and forth we could agree on the broad strokes of the desired app improvement, an approximate time frame and the amount of payment. A third of the sum paid in advance, another third after delivering a first test version, and the final third when everything worked to their satisfaction.
So I went to work. After some initial difficulties I made steady progress, and everything looked good.
Until a few weeks later when I received a quite large mail from the treasurer, basically out the blue; I wasn't expecting anything at that time. It was large because a video was attached. I watched it in growing amazement:
Somebody filmed, probably with a smartphone, how they approached what I later identified as Freemasons’ Hall, the headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England in West End, and stopped at something that looked like a private side entry. Before taking out a key and proceeding to open the locked door they held a printout in front of the camera; I could read enough to see that it was from our e-mail exchange.
The video went on to show some rooms inside that didn't look like they were part of the building that the broad public could visit, and then ended abruptly.
This somehow had the look of a second proof to show that the person I mailed with really was a member of that lodge. But that was strange, I hadn't requested such a proof, and wasn't needing one either.
While still puzzling over this I found out that the "rbrunner7" account on their intranet website was no longer active.
A little later things turned ugly. Somebody had leaked the whole e-mail exchange between me and the treasurer to the Monero subreddit, including that mysterious video, open for everybody to see.
Of course the news that an organization as famous and as influential as the biggest Freemason lodge in Europe wanted to start using Monero hit the community like a bomb and made waves well beyond it.
And it had another effect as well: The price of XMR jumped upward as a first reaction and continued to rise strongly over the following days.
Finally the UGLE felt forced to make a press release and explained that they had no idea who was behind this all, but certainly not their treasurer.
At a certain price point XMR bumped against heavy resistance; there was large selling by people who did not seem to care too much about the price and continued to sell despite steadily sinking rates.
After a few weeks, with no substantial news forthcoming concerning this story, the XMR/USD rate was nearly back to where it was when everything started, and the proverbial grass started to slowly grow over everything. People had more or less decided that somehow this must have been fake news after all. If it sounds too good, and all ...
Thinking things through this looked more and more like a quite cleverly arranged pump-and-dump operation to me: Buy a lot of cheap XMR, pull this Freemasonry stunt, wait for the XMR price to rise as a result, sell a lot of expensive XMR, profit!
Even the video finally made sense: Some leakable "proof" for everything being plausible was needed. That "rbrunner7" account on the UGLE website had been perfect to convince me but would never stay up long enough to serve for the broad public.
While I was still trying to decide what to do with my half-finished rewrite of Monero's multisig transaction handling system the story added another twist in the form of a new e-mail:
Subject: Still interested?
I am writing you as the private secretary for all Freemasonic matters of His Royal Highness Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, Grand Master of our lodge as you may know.
We won't tell the police or the broad public as we don't want any more publicity in this matter, but I can tell you confidentially that the son of the current treasurer was behind this whole Monero scheme. He had stolen his father's private PGP key to mail with you, the necessary passwords to modify accounts on the lodge's intranet, and even keys to our headquarter.
We estimate he earned several million pounds with this venture. We currently don't know where he is, and we don't care too much either.
But now to the reason I contact you: Would you be ready to complete the commissioned Monero software improvements for us? For the agreed payment plus some nice bonus on top to compensate for the tumultuous times you went through?
We had a good look at Monero, discussed the matter internally extensively and came to the conclusion that the idea of using the cryptocurrency is a good one after all. Especially now that the world more or less decided Monero at UGLE is "fake news" and would not expect us doing so!
Please let me know whether you are interested to continue, in full secrecy of course, so in case we can start to clear any necessary details.