Business venture

How RentAHitman.com Went From a Legit Business to a Weird Honeypot

Late last year, a Michigander named Wendy Wein decided to have her ex-husband killed. Unsure how to go about it, she simply Googled “rent a hitman,” saw a link to RentAHitman.com, and submitted a request using the company’s convenient online form.

Despite founder Guido Fanelli’s claims, RentAHitman.com does not actually comply with privacy laws as set forth in the Hitman Information Privacy & Protection Act of 1964 (also known as HIPPA). This is because such a law does not exist, and neither does Guido Fanelli. Because RentAHitman.com is — gasp! – not true! As the Washington Post reported:

RentAHitman.com is a fake website. It is not run by “Guido Fanelli”, as he claims, but by Bob Innes, a 54-year-old man from Northern California who forwards any serious inquiries to law enforcement. Innes started the site 16 years ago as part of an internet security company that never got anywhere. Instead, it served as a kind of honeypot, attracting people who want to hire professional killers.

For Wein, it didn’t go well. She was arrested days after searching for an assassin and pleaded guilty earlier this month to soliciting murder and using a computer to commit a crime. Under her plea deal, she faces at least nine years in prison when she is sentenced in January.

On the surface, it certainly seems odd that some random guy is running his own assassination honeypot hobby. Naturally, there is a story there. It turns out that Innes had gone through the Napa Valley Police Academy himself, then ended up considering a career in network security. He bought the domain name in 2005 as a joint venture – first, to resell it for a profit if anyone wanted, and second, to help him start his own B2B consulting company that would test company’s online infrastructure to detect vulnerabilities.

In the end, neither venture was successful, and he just sort of forgot about the domain. A few years later, he checked the site’s email inboxes and found about 300 requests, most of which seemed serious, or at least serious. Then, in 2010, he received his first serious investigation. As he conveyed to Rolling stone:

It was from a woman named Helen. She was out of the UK but stuck in Canada. She had written an email to the contact email address, and it was basically a long, rambling email saying how she had been snatched away from her father’s inheritance by three family members. She has no money. She has no place to live. She’s stuck in Canada without a passport, so she can’t even leave. She wanted retaliation against her aunt, uncle and another family member. She provided physical addresses and so on. So when I first got this email, I was helping my brother move from LA to the Bay Area, so I was loading a U-Haul truck full of his stuff. I didn’t really take the time to thoroughly read Helen’s email. I just thought, he’s a troubled person. I really haven’t given it much thought. Then she sends a second email with “Urgent” in the subject line with more detailed and corroborating information. And I replied to that email and asked two simple questions. “Do you still need our services? Would you like me to put you in touch with the field agents?

I could tell that person was in a bad place. She was obviously serious about causing harm to people overseas. His email was long and rambling and with lots of detail. He’s a person who desperately needed… The other emails were basically one line emails to the email account, and there wasn’t much information to go from . No one left names or addresses or anything like that. They were people who just smelled like water. And I didn’t answer, so they kind of walked away with it. That email from Helen, I just knew from reading her first email that it was someone who wanted these people murdered.

Innes fished for Helen for a while until he got some details from her, which he then passed on to a friend at the local department, who in turn contacted the Canadian authorities, who carried out a check of welfare on the woman – who turned out to have several extradition warrants in the UK.

Since then, Innes has forwarded about 400 “requests for service” to authorities – just over half of all requests it receives through the site, according to the To post. Some of them turned out to be quite serious as well, although I’m not sure where this type of pedestrian volunteer service falls in terms of entrapment.

A Michigan woman attempted to hire an online assassin on RentAHitman.com. Now she is going to jail. [Jonathan Edwards / Washington Post]

How a fake Rent-a-Hitman site turned into an accidental murder-for-hire operation [EJ Dickson / Rolling Stone]