Online crooks target Indian women with job promises at Harvard: NYT

Nidhi Razdan was about to head to Harvard University to start a new job and a new life, when she received a jaw-dropping email.

A news anchor at the peak of her career, Razdan believed she would soon start teaching at Harvard.

She had told the world that she was leaving the news business and had freely shared her most important personal information with her new employer – passport details, medical records, bank account numbers, everything.

But when she opened her phone in the middle of a January night, she read the following message from an associate dean at Harvard: “There is no record of, or knowledge of, your name or appointment. “

The email closed: “I wish you the best for your future.”

Razdan felt dizzy and nauseous. “I just couldn’t believe it,” she said.

Razdan was one of many female journalists and media figures in India who were targeted, even after one of the women alerted Harvard and the public.

The incidents have raised questions about why Harvard – despite its reputation for fiercely protecting its brand – failed to act to stop the scam, even after being explicitly warned about it. They also revealed how easy it is for criminals to hide their identities on the Internet.

The people – or the person – behind the hoax were relentless. They’ve created a constellation of nested characters on Twitter, Facebook, Gmail, and WhatsApp to chase women down for months. Unlike typical online scammers, they didn’t appear to use the personal information they extracted to steal money or extort women, leaving their purpose a mystery.

Almost a year later, it is still unclear why the women were targeted. Although crooks have expressed online support for the Hindu nationalist movement in India, they have shed little light on their decision to deceive reporters.

the New York Times Reviewed private messages, emails and metadata the crooks sent to women, as well as archives of tweets and photos of the crooks who the crooks said were of themselves. The Times also drew on analysis from researchers at Stanford University and the University of Toronto who study online abuse, and a cybersecurity expert who examined Razdan’s computer.

The identity of the crooks remains a secret.

“This is unlike anything I have ever seen,” said Bill Marczak, senior researcher at Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto institute that investigates cyber attacks against journalists. “It’s a huge amount of effort and no payoff that we’ve identified.”

One at a time, the crooks selected their prey.

First known target: Rohini Singh, an outspoken journalist who delivered a successful article in 2017 on the commercial fortune of the son of Union Interior Minister Amit Shah. She is a freelance contributor to the online publication The Wire.

In mid-August 2019, Singh received a Twitter message from a person calling himself Tauseef Ahmad, who said he was a master’s student at Harvard Kennedy School and Singh’s hometown of Lucknow. They chatted about Lucknow and he invited her to a high-profile press conference. Harvard would cover all the expenses.

She was intrigued. But she became suspicious after Tauseef put her in touch with a colleague, introduced as Alex Hirschman, who wrote to her on August 19 from a Gmail account rather than an official Harvard email address. edu. On top of that, Tauseef and Alex had non-US based phone numbers.

Alex and Tauseef then asked him for the passport details and some photos, to be used for promotional purposes.

A few days later, convinced that their plea was a scam, Singh stopped all communication.

The next target was another journalist, Zainab Sikander. A promising political commentator, Sikander campaigns against discrimination against Muslims. She has also written and published numerous observations critical of the Modi government.

On August 22, 2019, Sikander also received a Twitter message from Tauseef Ahmad, inviting him to attend a high-profile press conference at Harvard.

Flattered and curious, Sikander started chatting with Tauseef on WhatsApp. She wasn’t fazed that her phone number began with the country code for the United Arab Emirates, despite claiming to be in the Boston area. Maybe he was a foreign student with connections to Dubai, she thought.

Much like Singh’s case, Tauseef linked her to Alex Hirschman. What she didn’t know was that Alex and Tauseef were probably fake personalities – a search of the Harvard Student Directory did not find any students of either name.

Still, something told him to beware. When she asked for a formal invitation from a dean, she never came. Sikander then broke off contact as well.

The next target was another journalist working for a major Indian publication, who spoke to The Times on condition that she was not identified. Suspicious of the scammer’s phone number in the UAE, she also quickly broke off contact. But the crooks haven’t given up.

By the time they communicated in November 2019 with Nighat Abbass, a spokesperson for BJP, they had copied the email signatures of real Harvard employees and slipped the official letterhead from the university’s website. .

It was only after the crooks pushed passport details and other personal information that Abbass decided she should check directly with one of the Harvard administrators included in the emails.

That administrator, Bailey Payne, program coordinator in Harvard’s vice-provost’s office for international affairs, responded, saying the invitation that appeared to have been sent from his Harvard.edu email address was bogus. When Payne asked Abbass if she wanted to share more information, Abbass eagerly cooperated. She sent a treasure – UAE phone number, emails, screenshots of fake Harvard documents.

But it’s unclear what action, if any, Harvard has taken. Payne did not respond to requests for comment. Jason Newton, a spokesperson, declined to comment.

By the time the hacker (s) contacted Razdan that same month, they were well trained.

That same month, Abbass tweeted a passionate video warning others to beware of Tauseef and the scam.

“It has been a crazy year,” Razdan said, citing the string of huge stories that have erupted, from a conflict between India and Pakistan and national elections to the profound reorganization of Kashmir. “I was mentally and physically exhausted. “

She said to herself, “If I don’t try something new now, I never will.” It was as if the crooks were reading her mind.

The first email arrived on November 14, 2019, from a serious college student – Melissa Reeve – inviting her to a media seminar at Harvard. It was then presented, via email, to another student, Tauseef Ahmad. When he said there might be a journalist job available at Harvard, Razdan let his hopes fly.

The crooks were taking bolder steps to impersonate Harvard. They bought a website from GoDaddy, HarvardCareer.com, in January 2020 and set up a Microsoft mail server that would soon allow them to send messages stamped with the Harvard name.

He was then asked for references. Each of those hired by Razdan received an email from HarvardCareer.com with a link to download a recommendation.

Harvard says it fiercely protects its brand, using software to detect new websites that infringe its brand, but Newton, the university’s spokesperson, declined to say if he had detected HarvardCareer. com.

Scammers continued to use it to send emails, capitalizing on Harvard’s reputation.

In February 2020, Razdan learned that the job was his. He paid $ 151,000 (Rs 1.1 crore) per year. She received a long contract. In June 2020, she tweeted: “Later this year, I am starting as an associate professor teaching journalism in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University.

The crooks played on Razdan’s eagerness to connect with faculty members. Several times, they invited her to make a video call with Emma Densch, a true dean of Harvard.

But appeals continued to be canceled at the last minute. In December, Razdan started to get angry. She contacted officials in Harvard’s human resources department. They did not respond. She then emailed Densch’s office directly, inquiring about the canceled video calls.

It was then that she received the shocking email in the middle of the night.

New York Times Press Service


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