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‘It’s the wild, wild West’: Meet the crypto hunters of New Hampshire

This father-son duo recovers bitcoin for customers, as the cryptocurrency industry grows.

Chris Brooks (right) and his son, Charlie, run a father-son business in crypto hacking. When people lose passwords to their bitcoin wallets, they contact the Brooks', who try and help them crack forgotten passwords and get money they've lost.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

On a frantic day last September, Chris and Charlie Brooks rushed to Logan Airport. It seemed like a fool’s errand, but if the last-minute trip to Savannah, Ga., went right, they could be in for a six-figure payday.

The father-son team from Durham, N.H., are used to strange situations — they hack bitcoin wallets for a living, after all — but this one was particularly memorable.

It started with an e-mail purporting to show a picture of $44 million stashed in a bitcoin wallet. Apparently, three men in Georgia — a strip-mall magnate, a farmer, and a former Navy SEAL — won the digital wallet in a bankruptcy case. But they had one big problem: They didn’t know the key code to unlock the funds. (A bitcoin wallet secures cryptocurrency with a 64-character key of letters and numbers that ensures only the owner can open the wallet.)

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The Brooks duo got on a Zoom call with the men and decided they were up for the challenge. Within hours, they booked plane tickets and hopped on a flight the next day.

When they landed in Savannah, things seemed off. The trio, who picked them up from the airport and squeezed them into a Ford pickup truck, said the wallet was now worth $3.2 billion. Moreover, Savannah wasn’t the intended destination. They drove an hour past it, through the cotton fields of rural Georgia, and ended up at a strip-mall office in a town they didn’t remember the name of.

Once inside, they found tables littered with notepads, filled with potential guesses for what the bitcoin wallet’s key code could be. The former Navy SEAL gave them a warning: “If you steal anything from me,” Chris Brooks recalled him saying, “I can track you down with my rifle.”

They tried for 10 hours, sifting through the notebooks filled with keyword guesses, e-mails, and other documents, for any information about the wallet. Finally, they were able to crack it open.

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The riches inside? $10.

As the father and son sat in a ski house in Maine recounting their adventures in an interview, they said the trip taught them to be “a little more cautious.” Still, they had few regrets, saying it’s simply the hazards of making a living in the crypto world.

“It’s the wild, wild West out there,” Chris Brooks said. “Crazy things do happen.”

Cryptocurrency still feels like a new frontier, and the Brooks’ company, Crypto Asset Recovery, is part of a wave of businesses cropping up around it. The crypto industry is filled with scammers and little regulation. Now, amid volatility in the value of bitcoin — and with an estimated $140.7 billion in funds lost or stranded in wallets, according to bitcoin intelligence firm Chainalysis — business seems to be booming.

“There’s no reason to run this business if you’re going to be skeptical of every crazy story,” Charlie Brooks said. “Because that’s the eventual goal: that we get some crazy wallet down the road.”

The Brooks’ foray into cracking open crypto wallets started in 2017. Chris, 50, who previously ran a furnace comparison website and worked as a tech executive for a nursing home ratings platform in Wellesley, was intrigued by bitcoin, knowing he wanted to start a business around it. His first attempt at the password-hacking business fizzled. But a little over a year ago, as bitcoin values shot up, demand increased, prompting him to resurrect the venture.

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This time, his son Charlie, 20, a self-described “tech nerd” wanted in, deciding to drop out of the University of Vermont, where he studied computer science. (The two are obsessed with cryptocurrency, they said, often exhausting Chris’s wife and four other children, who have “no interest” in their endless industry chatter, he said.)

Chris runs the sales and marketing side of the business. He’ll field hundreds of e-mails in a day — vetting stories of lost passwords or tales of being scammed — seeing which cases they can take. Meanwhile, Charlie does the hacking. He often spends the entire day in his basement office, surrounded by homemade servers and his powerful computer.

To do their work, they rely on clients giving them any information about what a lost password might be. They put that information into specially configured software, which runs through millions — or billions — of password variations, until they find one that unlocks the wallet. They said they have a roughly 30 percent success rate.

They charge 20 percent of any crypto-assets they find, up to 10 bitcoin. If they find more than that, it is a sliding scale. All told, in one year the father-son team has recovered “seven figures” in bitcoin cash, they said, declining to specify their exact haul. (The value of one bitcoin has been hovering around $40,000.)

In tricky situations, such as when cryptocurrency wallets are at the center of a divorce proceeding or estate dealing, they work with their lawyer to determine whether the person wanting to hack into the wallet actually has ownership of it. (This is an area that is increasingly common and hard to navigate.)

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And when they do accept cases, gaining trust is crucial.

Chris Brooks (right), and his son, Charlie. The pair run a father-son business in crypto hacking. When people lose passwords to their bitcoin wallets, they contact the duo, who try and help them crack forgotten passwords and get money they've lost. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Rhonda Kampert, a day trader near Chicago, remembers coming to the pair last August, feeling hopeless. In 2013, she bought six bitcoins at roughly $80 each. But later, she realized she lost nine digits to her wallet’s ID, and was unable to access the three and a half bitcoins she had left. In 2021, with the price of bitcoin hovering at $50,000, she felt motivated to do something, and contacted Chris Brooks.

She was initially skeptical. But after conversations with him, in-depth Google searches of the company, and a review of the terms of service, she relented. “Whoever you give that [wallet] information to — you really have to trust them,” she said. “Because they have it, and they can they can take it, and there’s nothing stopping them.”

A few days later, over a 20-minute Zoom call, the duo unlocked the wallet in front of her eyes. They took their 20 percent fee and handed over her wallet, which was valued at roughly $150,000. They told her to put the bitcoin elsewhere, because they now knew where it was. “Everything was very transparent,” she said.

Rhonda Kampert (left), at her daughter Megan's college graduation at Arizona State University.Rhonda Kampert

Others are not so lucky. Andrew VanVoorhis, an IT professional in New Orleans, remembers losing the notebook which contained his crypto wallet password. He had one bitcoin in it from 2013, and tried for years to unlock it. Last year, he went to the Brooks duo. He gave them all the information he had, and what keywords might be in the password. It wasn’t enough.

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“It’s a hard lesson,” VanVoorhis said. “But I still hope that at some point I can jog my own memory or find the old notebook and be able to get access to that.”

Legal experts caution against paying any company to hack a crypto wallet without doing research.

Andrew Balthazor, an attorney at Holland & Knight who specializes in cryptocurrency, said crypto hacking companies that charge a large upfront fee are a “red flag.” Any payment should be contingent upon the company recovering bitcoin funds.

Reading a company’s online reviews can also be helpful, he added, but noted the savviest of fraudsters will likely “flood review sites with positive reviews.”

If companies claim they can hack “hardware wallets” — special devices that store bitcoin — customers should ask how many attempts will be made before stopping. Too many unsuccessful attempts can lock people out forever, Balthazor noted. And companies that claim to recover stolen bitcoin are to be treated with the utmost caution, he said, noting that the sector is “rife with fraud.”

“Go in eyes wide open,” he said.