The FBI on Wednesday was investigating a growing number of threatening emails sent to hundreds of voters in several Florida counties from a sender claiming to be affiliated with the Proud Boys, U.S. authorities confirmed.
Voters in at least four counties received emails Tuesday morning from a group claiming to be the far-right Proud Boys, but typos and false claims about public voting information in the messages hint at a deceptive voter-intimidation campaign days ahead of Election Day.
Florida, the nation’s largest swing state, was among at least four states targeted, including Arizona, Pennsylvania and Alaska. Alachua, Collier, Brevard, Escambia and Citrus counties are among the Florida counties that have reported emails to authorities.
In Florida, the intimidation tactic comes as 3.6 million voters have already cast ballots early and by mail. The emails, which appear to target Democratic voters, have raised suspicion of potential foreign involvement and local authorities have sought assistance from federal law enforcement. At least 200 have been sent to Florida voters, according to local officials and a national civil rights group.
“Though the FBI’s standard practice is to neither confirm nor deny any investigation, we take all election-related threats seriously whether it is vote fraud, voter suppression or threats from cyber- or foreign-influence actors,” said Amanda Warford Videll, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Jacksonville office, in an email Wednesday afternoon.
The investigation into the emails was later confirmed by U.S. authorities.
The emails include voters’ full names and the sender claims to be in possession of their personal information. They were sent from an email address using the name of the Proud Boys, a self-described militia group that denies involvement. The emails all have similar wording. The email address was firstname.lastname@example.org.
“You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you,” the email threatens. “Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply. We will know which candidate you voted for.”
Henry “Enrique” Tarrio Jr., the Miami-based chairman of the Proud Boys and state director of Latinos for Trump, has said he is cooperating with the FBI’s Jacksonville office and denies the group was involved in sending the emails. He and his group have been supportive of President Trump.
The email had several “red flags” and misleading information, said Damon Scott, a Florida fellow with First Draft News, a disinformation research organization. In Florida, Oct. 6 was the deadline to register or change party affiliation. And though voter registration data — including names, addresses, dates of birth, party affiliation and email addresses — is public record, votes are private.
On Twitter Wednesday, the director of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Christopher C. Krebs, noted that, “Ballot secrecy is guaranteed by law in all states. These emails are meant to intimidate and undermine American voters’ confidence in our elections.”
Several Florida voters who received the emails told the Miami Herald they did not feel threatened at the time, but election officials and experts in disinformation say the scare tactic could lead to voter suppression.
“Even though a lot of voters are weary of this sort of thing, I can see how some voters could be intimidated by this, particularly people who may find the Proud Boys intimidating,” Scott said.
In Florida, where the 2016 presidential election was decided by 112,911 votes, voter turnout matters. Election officials and national groups are taking the emails seriously with less than two weeks until Election Day.
Local officials in Alachua, Citrus, Brevard and Collier counties have reported the emails to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The federal Joint Terrorism Task Force is looking into the matter in Florida and other states, according to Brevard County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Todd Goodyear.
“We are just trying to calm the worries of people,” Goodyear said.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement Gretl Plessinger said the state is not investigating, and referred questions to local authorities and the FBI.
“Whether the source of these emails comes from someone based domestically or abroad it is important that we understand who is behind the scheme and why are they doing this,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Clarke said her organization has received reports of over 80 emails as of Wednesday morning, with rhe vast majority reported in Florida.
At the University of Florida, which is located in Alachua County, the university removed 183 emails from the UF email inboxes.
Will the scare tactic work?
Florida voters who were targeted by the emails said on Tuesday they had mixed feelings about the intimidation tactics, according to interviews with half a dozen email recipients. Some said they were amused or confused by the emails, but others said they were fearful of someone having their address and other personal information.
“The email actually freaked me out a bit,” said Rebecca Connors, a Brevard County registered voter, who said she received the email with her father’s address listed, making her nervous for her family’s safety.
Connors, a registered Democrat who already voted by mail for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, reported the email to the Brevard Supervisor of Elections.
Scott, whose work at First Draft includes tracking down disinformation in Florida, said people who become nervous after receiving such an email might simply stay home rather than vote.
“People may say, well, maybe I’ll just sit this one or maybe they have seen recent polling and they say, well, looks like my candidate is up so I am going to sit it out and not risk it,” Scott said.
Kimberly Lofgren, a Viera resident and lifelong Democrat who received the email, said she wasn’t afraid for her personal safety but instead fearful for the integrity of the process. She will be voting for Biden, she said.
“I don’t scare easily,” she said. “Other people who receive this email might feel threatened. They might change their vote or not vote at all. That is the point of voter intimidation. Whoever is behind this, they have your address. They know where you live. And that is scary.”
Vaune Davis, a U.S.-Canadian dual citizen, reached out to the Herald on Tuesday after receiving the threatening email. A day later, she was still angry.
“What happened to my country that our elections are coming to this?” said Davis, 61, recently retired and a former women’s long-distance cycling champ.
She shared the response she got from Collier County election officials, who said they were looking into it along with law enforcement and the FBI.
“Please keep in mind that voter information, including your name, address, email address, and party affiliation is all public records in the State of Florida — no one ‘hacked’ our voter files,” said the email from Melissa Blazier, Collier County’s chief deputy supervisor of elections. “We are committed to providing a safe and secure voting process for all voters and take threats such as this very seriously.”
Mike Harrison, a Democrat living in a largely Republican retirement community in Punta Gorda, said he received the Proud Boys email at around 10 a.m. Tuesday morning. Harrison, 71, wondered if he was targeted because of his age. But the retired naval officer said he is not so easily intimidated.
“I think this was done by amateurs,” said Harrison, pointing out that the word “voting” was misspelled in the email subject line. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was some sort of foreign interference.”
A 26-year-old student in Orlando, Cameron Garretson, also received one of the emails. He’s a computer science major with a focus in cybersecurity and knew immediately it wasn’t a real threat. The address listed was his old one, in Melbourne, and it didn’t seem to come from the Proud Boys.
“My first thought was not Proud Boys but foreign nations — thinking of GRU here for example,” said Garretson, in reference to a series of hacking and malware operations used by Russia to attack other countries’ infrastructure and elections.
He hasn’t voted yet, and plans to vote early next week.
In Brevard County, where Harrison, Lofgren and Connors live, local law enforcement became aware of the emails on Tuesday afternoon and launched an investigation to determine the origin of the emails. Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey said in a statement Tuesday that he was aware of the emails that were distributed to registered Democrats.
Ivey assured voters that the investigation had determined the emails are “not considered a valid threat” but were sent with a “morally corrupt agenda.”
“Please do not allow this or any other action by anyone to intimidate or dissuade you from your right as an American to cast your ballot for the candidates of your choosing during early voting or on Election Day,” Ivey said.
The Proud Boys connection
Emails reviewed by the Herald display an email address using the name of the Proud Boys, a group that most recently gained notoriety during the first televised presidential debate, when President Trump failed to disavow them, saying only “stand back and stand by.”
Digital forensic specialists confirmed to McClatchy and the Herald that they believe the emails arrived from a server in Estonia.
The coding for the email’s header — to, from and subject lines — shows the location of the email server in Estonia but not where the email sender was.
Tarrio on Wednesday insisted the organization had nothing to do with the mass emails, and said he is cooperating with the FBI’s Jacksonville office.
“I don’t think there is much I can do but help them with any leads,” Tarrio said.
One lead he shared with the FBI points to an unknown individual or entity who two months ago created a “fake” Proud Boys website that no longer exists, Tarrio said. He said that whoever created the website was “out for data.”
“They were looking for people to sign up to capture emails and text messages,” Tarrio said. “I don’t even know who made the website … I don’t even have a clue.”
McClatchy DC reporter Kevin G. Hall and Miami Herald reporter Jay Weaver contributed to this report