FLORIDA, USA — A far-right group with a history of violent confrontations on Tuesday denied sending threatening emails to voters in multiple Florida counties pressuring them to vote for President Donald Trump.
On Wednesday in a hastily-scheduled announcement, Director National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray said Iran and Russia had obtained voter registration information in an effort to sow confusion in presidential election.
That came hours after federal cybersecurity officials warned Americans that threatening emails had been sent to voters in Florida, Pennsylvania and other states that pushed Trump's candidacy.
The emails, claiming to be from the Proud Boys, said the group had obtained contact information about the voter and threatened to “come after” the person if they don’t vote for Trump.
The Proud Boys, a group that catapulted to national attention in September when Trump dodged a chance to condemn them, denied responsibility and condemned the emails.
"No, it wasn’t us. The people (who sent the emails) used a spoofing email that pretended to be us," Enrique Tarrio, international chairman of the Proud Boys, told USA TODAY. “Whoever did this should be in prison for a long time."
Tarrio said the emails in this case showed signs they were spoofed and said he is working with law enforcement to address the issue. “It is voter intimidation, no matter if it came from us or it didn’t – which it didn’t."
Email spoofing is a technique commonly used by scammers to fool victims by making them believe the email comes from a source other than the scammer.
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Voter intimidation is a federal offense subject to up to one-year imprisonment.
The Florida emails appear to follow a similar, although not entirely uniform, format:
"Hi (name) We are in possession of all your information You are currently registered as a Democrat and we know this because we have gained access into the entire voting infrastructure. You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you. 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. I would take this seriously if I were you. (Voter's address)"
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A voter's name, address, email and date of birth are public record, according to the state’s division of elections website. Who a voter casts a ballot for is not.
The Alachua County Sheriff’s Office in Florida had said in a Facebook post that the messages appeared to be a scam.
Election officials said Tuesday they'd heard of dozens of the emails, but were unsure of whether they were solely sent to registered Democrats.
Donald Schwinn, 85, a snowbird registered to vote in Melbourne Beach, received one, telling Florida Today, part of the USA TODAY Network, that "they're trying to scare people into voting for Trump."
Local officials were scrambling to get on top of the situation on Tuesday.
Kimberly Boelzner, spokesperson for Brevard Supervisor of Elections Lori Scott, said their office had received several reports of such emails and were awaiting guidance from the state division of elections.
"We're advising voters to report it to local law enforcement," she said.
By 6 p.m., Boelzner said her office had received about a dozen emails and a dozen calls about the matter. Scott has been in touch with the FBI and other authorities, she said.
Stacey Patel, chair of the Brevard Democrats, said she received at least five such emails from voters Tuesday and had notified the elections supervisor's office.
"We've not seen this kind of voter intimidation in the past and it's obviously really troubling," she said. In a follow-up text, she said she advises recipients of the email to contact the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI and the Florida Democratic Party Voter Protection team at 1-833-VOTE-FLA.
Click here to read this article from The Florida Times -Union.