Federal cybersecurity officials are warning Americans that claims made in threatening emails sent to voters in Florida and other states are false and meant to sow doubt in the integrity of the presidential election.
The emails, which purport to have been sent from "email@example.com," say the group has the voter's contact information and would “come after” them if they didn’t vote for President Donald Trump.
“These emails are meant to intimidate and undermine American voters’ confidence in our elections,” said Christopher Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security.
Though the emails claim to know which candidate someone casts a ballot for, Krebs posted a message on Twitter reminding Americans that ballot secrecy is guaranteed by law in every state.
“This is what we mean by not falling for sensational and unverified claims,” he said. “The last line of defense in election security is you – the American voter. So be prepared, be a smart consumer and sharer of information.”
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The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has received reports from roughly 100 voters who said they received the emails, according to David Brody, counsel and senior fellow for privacy and technology. The voters live in multiple states, but the “overwhelming majority” are in Florida, he said.
“This is all preliminary and we're still investigating, but it looks like the folks in other states are likely incidental in that, a lot of them at one point lived in Florida and moved away,” he said. “We don't know for certain, but it's possible that whoever sent these emails was using outdated voter registration data from Florida.”
Brody said the organization is still trying to determine the scope of the scam and who may be behind it.
“The important things to emphasize here are, everyone should know that it's completely safe to vote, and that your vote is secure, and that no one – not even election officials – can determine who you voted for,” he said. “Your ballot is secret. These emails are a scam. And they're a hoax that are designed to threaten and intimidate people.”
The Proud Boys, a far-right group that espouses militant authoritarian ideology, has denied involvement and said the emails were “spoofed,” a technique used to hide the true source of electronic communications.
“It wasn’t us,” Enrique Tarrio, international chairman of the Proud Boys, told USA TODAY. “Whoever did this should be in prison for a long time."
Who are the Proud Boys?: Far-right group has concerned experts for years
Krebs said his agency is looking into the emails but did not elaborate. Voter intimidation is a federal offense subject to up to one year in prison.
The emails, which follow a similar but not uniform format, address voters by name and claim the sender has “access into the entire voting infrastructure,” according to one sent to a voter in Florida.
They warn, “You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you.”
In emails shared with Florida Today, voters' names and physical addresses were accurate, although such information is generally public record that could be retrieved in bulk from public databases by running a program.
The sender's web domain, officialproudboys.com, is inactive. Though it was associated with the Proud Boys organization, control of the website appears to have changed on Oct. 19, according to web domain registrar databases.
Metadata from one email suggests they originated from a server, "alioth.elkdata.ee," in Estonia. ElkData is an Estonian web hosting company.
The small Baltic state, which gained independence from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, is often praised for its cybersecurity infrastructure. The country overhauled its cybersecurity after a major cyberattack in 2007 that was believed to have been carried out by Russia, according to the think tank Chatham House.
Some voters in Alaska received similar emails, and authorities notified the FBI, according to the Anchorage Daily News.
The Washington Post reported that voters in Arizona and Pennsylvania received threatening emails too. However, the Arizona Secretary of State said it hasn't received any complaints from voters.
On a conference call Tuesday, top election officials in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio said such misinformation or disinformation campaigns are among their biggest challenges this election.
“It is unfortunate, but it is a reality that we live with – whether it’s coming from foreign adversaries or coming from our own domestic American politicians,” Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said.
The point of disinformation campaigns, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said, is "to confuse voters about their rights, particularly at a time when they’re facing so much confusion and anxiety about so many things.”
Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, called the ruse "outrageous and despicable."
He said he hopes voters who received the email will turn to news reports and official information and recognize it as a scam. But some people may fall victim to it.
"We know it's a possibility because scam emails sometimes work," Jewett said. "Less tech-savvy voters might be more inclined to take it seriously and worry about it, and maybe change their (voting) behavior."
Recipients interviewed by Florida Today, a member of the USA TODAY Network, said they were dubious of the email right away.
“While I doubt seriously that the Proud Boys are coming after me, or anybody else, it was just disturbing to get something like that,” said John Alpizar, an attorney who resides in Melbourne Beach, Florida. ”People perhaps who are vulnerable to this threat might take it seriously, like for instance if I was a senior citizen.”
Kevin Johnson and Joel Shannon of USA TODAY contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Election 2020: Feds investigating voter email threats