Threatening emails. Weird recruitment text messages. A website with an “assault weapon” raffle.
In the weeks immediately preceding and following President Donald Trump’s debate-night nod to the Proud Boys, voters have reported a slew of spam messages that claim to come from the far-right paramilitary group. But many or all of those messages are hoaxes. Some of them originate from a serial prankster who has previously posed as anti-fascists. Others, according to the FBI, are coming from Iran.
The result is a murky, threat-ridden state of affairs with some voters more worried than ever about election security amid Trump’s calls for supporters—including the Proud Boys in particular—to monitor polls.
"We are in possession of all your information," read one email claiming to be from the Proud Boys that was shared on social media by multiple Florida residents Tuesday. "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. Good luck."
Some of the emails ended with the recipients’ home addresses, Florida Today reported. The outlet noted that early reports of the emails appeared to show them targeting Democrats in the state’s Brevard and Alachua counties. Voter information is available upon request in Florida, meaning the sender could have legally obtained names and addresses from the state, instead of gaining “access into the entire voting infrastructure,” as the email claimed. In a press conference on Wednesday night, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said both Iranian and Russian operatives had obtained voter registration information.
The emails, which were addressed to the recipient by name, appeared to come from the address “email@example.com.”
That email address does not correspond with the Proud Boys’ real website, however. As Vice previously reported, the sender address appears to have been spoofed, and actually passed through IP addresses located in Estonia. (This is no guarantee that the sender is in fact located in Estonia. In fact, according to the FBI, Iran was behind the emails.)
Enrique Tarrio, the head of the Proud Boys, told The Daily Beast his group had nothing to do with the emails. (Claims from the Proud Boys leadership are sometimes dubious. After the group’s Philadelphia chapter advertised a sparsely attended rally last month, the group claimed the event was actually a hoax intended to trick the left.)
It’s unclear how far the emails spread. Voters across Alaska also reported getting a version of the email, as well as threatening messages from a sender with “Trump Digital Soldier” in their email address. As in Florida, Alaska voter registrations can also be accessed by the public.
Vice reported that at least one recipient of the email received a follow-up email with a video of a person purporting to hack the mail-in ballot system. The video was similar to a hoax that circulated on 4chan earlier this week, and does not represent a significant election security threat, experts told the outlet.
The Proud Boys, as well as the threat of pro-Trump election vigilantes, gained new visibility after the first presidential debate in September, during which Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, called on his supporters to monitor election sites, and called on the Proud Boys to “stand by.” Trump, whose campaign encourages supporters to join a “Trump Army” of unsanctioned poll watchers, subsequently said he disavowed the Proud Boys, a violent group with ties to white supremacists.
Prior to Trump’s (at least nominal) disavowal, the Proud Boys celebrated the president’s debate-night statements and sold t-shirts with his “stand by” quote.
But another person also seized on the comments: Adam Rahuba, an internet troll who gained fame for staging a fake “antifa” rally in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania this summer. That rally prompted a real far-right response. Members of militia groups and the Ku Klux Klan flocked to Gettysburg to counter the non-threat, antagonizing bystanders. The Washington Post reported that a heavily armed far-right contingent surrounded a pastor who was wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, prompting law enforcement to intervene.
Beginning in late August, Rahuba registered a fake Proud Boys website, he told The Daily Beast on Twitter. He said he also started sending fake Proud Boy recruitment texts to prominent liberal Twitter personalities whose phone numbers he found online “to make it look more legit (and to increase fear of the actual PB's to help drive voter turnout).”
“Antifa and BLM terrorists are destroying our great country!” read one of Rahuba’s Proud Boys texts, shared by a liberal Twitter user with more than 200,000 followers. “We must stop them. Join the PROUD BOYS USA.”
After Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand by,” Rahuba said he started incorporating that slogan into the texts, which he was still sending in late September.
The text concluded with a link to Rahuba’s fake Proud Boys site, which encouraged would-be applicants to fill out a form with all their personal information. The site also advertised a “win an ‘assault weapon’” raffle, and a fake Proud Boys phone number, which Rahuba connected to an answering machine.
At least 80 phones texted or left voicemails with the fake Proud Boys number, according to recordings Rahuba shared with The Daily Beast. The voicemails ranged in content from insults to multiple men claiming they wanted to join the group (although their sincerity was uncertain).
The messages may have been the first time some of the recipients had looked into the group.
One man, apparently taken in by the messages, left a voicemail with his name and phone number requesting the Proud Boys “have somebody call me and explain what it is you guys do.”
Others were not so positive. “Fucking bullshit organization. Misdirected patriotism. Read a fucking history book,” one caller suggested.
Another man, who said he was Black, called the group “fucking weirdos” and accused them of perpetuating racism.
One woman, perhaps in a bid to de-convert the Proud Boys, left at least 45 messages, many of them singing hymns about tolerance or reading passages from the writer James Baldwin.
“Oh guys, I’m so sorry, I’m afraid that somehow you accidentally blocked me from your line,” the woman said in one call, who left voicemails from at least two different numbers. “Shoot. Anyway, I thought I’d missed a couple days reading to you, but I’m baaack, so hello. Alright, again I’m going to pick up where I left off. This is from James Baldwin’s 1962 essay ‘The Fire Next Time.’”