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The Mysterious Mister Hokum

Well-known technology historian Jason Scott tells the extraordinary story of the con artist named John Paul Aleshe, aka Robert Hoquim, at DerbyCon conference.

Welcome to The Mysterious Mister Hokum, presented to you by Jason Scott, proprietor of textfiles.com, documentary filmmaker, famous cat owner, problematic kickstarter, rehabilitation officer, and friend to all in terms of history.

The Mysterious Mister Hokum

When Robert Hoquim died, he died in the basement apartment that he had in Indiana. He, at that time, was a recently retired owner of an ISP called IQuest in Indianapolis, and he was a beloved member of the community. He was a car collector, he was somebody who would really play the part in the growth of the Internet in the Indianapolis area.

Of course, the police, finding him dead of a heart attack, wanted to find out more about what family members he had and maybe to notify them. And they ran into some problems. First of all, it turned out that his social security identification card wasn’t real. It turned out that it was handmade. And his other information didn’t match up; it matched to other people around the country.

Facts that turned out untrue And so, what ended up happening was that this beloved guy had all these holes, and they couldn’t figure out what was going on. Again, he’d been around for years, he was a Vietnam vet, he’d got a degree in mathematics and everything else. It turned out that, in fact, none of that was true. They were able to go to his storage unit to maybe get a little bit more of information, and that is when it really fell apart.

Notion of 'hokum' defined So, hokum – the concept of hokum is one of not telling the truth, telling a little bit more of a story that, perhaps, you should, and kind of trying to put one over on people. Hokum was, in fact, his last name; Robert Hoquim. And Robert was not named Robert Hoquim.

His actual real name was Robert Aleshe, or I should say John Paul Aleshe. He had, in fact, been on the run for over 20 years.Mugshot of Robert Aleshe This photo you’re seeing of him (see right-hand image) is a mugshot taken of him in Dallas. The reason he is in a cast is because his finger has been shot off. And the reason his finger has been shot off was because the lack of a partition in the cop car when you’re busting somebody for writing bad checks meant that it was easier just to handcuff the guy and put him in the front of the cop car with you, which meant that when he was able to get one hand out of the handcuffs and he struggled with the cop for the gun. The gun went off and took his finger out. But they needed a mugshot from him, so they took a picture of him with the missing finger anyway.

John Aleshe had been kind of always on the periphery of getting away with things. He was a person who had run a number of scams, and I’ll mention some of them, throughout his life. I wanted to talk about how I found out about him, and kind of the earlier lessons that I think come from him, and the wider ideas that we get from a guy like this.

Because this is a computer security conference, and security conferences are ones where people discuss the whole manifest of trust in the web. And one of the side effects of this is that people can get really hung up on believing that because they are aware of how things can go wrong, they themselves are fully capable of knowing when things can go wrong; I just wanted to show exactly kind of where it goes and our roots in it as computer industry.

One of Hoquim’s personas In the glove compartment of a pickup truck that was gassed and ready to go, in the storage unit – only one is mentioned here (see left-hand image) – there were actually multiple fake IDs. Bear in mind: Robert Aleshe was in fact a multi-millionaire at this point, and yet, even at that moment he was keeping a truck ready to go at the slightest provocation in the storage unit, along with whole new identities waiting for him to go.

Yet another mugshot This is a different picture of him (see right-hand image). It looks like he’s younger, but I believe that that’s a hairpiece. He’d been arrested in Colorado, and his scams ranged from simple check cashing, kite schemes – to something called the bust-out. Does anyone know what a bust-out is? Here is how the bust-out works. You go to a place and you ingratiate yourself with the community, and you end up telling people that you’ll help them.

It’s, ironically, a lot of work to do this. You basically have to become friends with people; when there are shitty jobs, nobody wants them, you take them. You offer to get in on stuff and help people with things, and then over time the community depends on you. And that is when you fuck them. You, basically, step in and you say to them: “I came up with a deal. I’ll do this investment with you. You’ll give me some cash, I’ll do some cash; maybe even do one successfully.” But then you push for an unusually large one. And then when the money comes in and you go to do the next part, you disappear. And this is what he had done.

Now you’re probably thinking when I heard about this. The interesting thing is I’m currently 43; I heard about this scam, about him, in 1988, when I was 18. And what had happened was: he was a member of a community on FidoNet.Typical BBS member’s workspace I won’t go too much into FidoNet here, it’s a personal favorite of mine. But think of FidoNet as a computer with a fat guy calling another fat guy. The way that FidoNet worked was that FidoNet’s magic was in its network. And what would happen was you would post a message on FidoNet on the single-use BBS, single-person BBS, and at night, it would call another BBS and it would transfer files at night, very quickly, 3 in the morning. When these were wrong numbers, it was a bad day for that person. They would transfer the files, transfer the messages, and now you would have your post appear on two places. If it sounds weird that you would have to wait a day for an email – that’s the way it worked.

Now, this didn’t scale very well after a couple hundred nodes. So, what they came up with was a much more complicated system; this hub region system. What would happen is that one machine would be designated as the hub, and so the other machines locally – because at the time, back before 20% of you were born, there was local calling vs. long distance, and long distance was expensive, so the idea was that everyone in your local calling area would call one machine, and that machine would then, at night, do the transfer, and that was the hub. And then, over the next day, it would transfer back out.

And this was all had ad hoc, this was all being done by amateurs; it was a fantastically powerful system to be able to transfer things. But it had that one interesting flaw, which was that to be a hub was a relatively expensive process. So, when he joined the community that he was in, John Aleshe, at that time being called John Richard, became the hub.
 

Read next: The Mysterious Mister Hokum 2: Outbreak of Early Computer Frauds

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