Some Democratic voters in Florida have been receiving unsolicited emails purportedly from the Proud Boys, a far-right street-fighting gang. The emails are threatening: "Vote for Trump or else!" the subject line says.
"We are in possession of all your information," the email reads. "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."
Motherboard obtained a full copy of one of the emails, which includes metadata and email headers. The email nominally says it was sent from the address "email@example.com." The headers have more clues about where it came from, or at least what infrastructure the senders used. The "client-ip" address in the headers points to an Estonian IP, suggesting the senders spoofed the email address displayed to receivers. The Proud Boys, on some of their official channels, have claimed to have nothing to do with the emails, though it is of course possible that someone involved with the Proud Boys was involved in spoofing the emails. Local media in Florida has reported that the FBI is investigating.
A man who received the email said the personal data included in the threatening email, including his full name, and home address, were accurate. Moreover, the email address where he received the message is "a one-off-email I only use for voting stuff," he said.
Motherboard agreed to keep him anonymous because of the threatening nature of the email.
The email headers and the fact that this man's email was unique to his voting records suggests that the Proud Boys, or whoever was pretending to be them, got the man's details from public voter rolls, accessible to anyone. VICE was able to confirm that the man's personal details are publicly available online just by searching for his first and last name, plus the keywords "democrat" and "Florida."
The man, who works in the IT industry, explained that the message "was NOT originally detected as spam by Google," and that he then marked it as such in an attempt to get Google to flag the same email to others as spam, and eventually block it.
Moreover, from his own analysis of the email metadata, he said it appears that the senders used a new domain and didn't bother to set it up so people could even reply to it: "The host that sent the email looks like a throw-away hoster from Estonia," he said. The email metadata mentions the address "firstname.lastname@example.org."
That "email actually came from a host associated with koolibri.ee," the man said, but it doesn't mean the legitimate owners of that domain collaborated in the spamming effort, as they were perhaps hacked, or the domain could have been hijacked in some way.
Koolibri.ee is an Estonian book publisher that prints school textbooks. It also "publishes dictionaries, children´s books, reference books, science fiction, and fiction both translated and in the original." Its slogan is "Educational Books From Estonia." Koolibri did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It is unclear how or whether the Koolibri company, which appears to be a legit book publisher, is involved in this at all.
Proud Boys didn’t respond to VICE News’ email inquiry, but on social media they were bristling about the apparent voter intimidation campaign. Proud Boys’ Seattle Chapter put out a PSA on Telegram, calling the emails a “false flag operation and a larp being carried out by someone who is soon to be exposed.” That message was distributed to other Telegram channels associated with the Proud Boys. (Disclosure: Gavin McInnes founded the Proud Boys in 2016. He was also a co-founder of VICE. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then.)
Proud Boy organizer Joe Biggs chimed in on Parler. “This is such BS,” he wrote. “We don't do that none of this stuff even is remotely attached to us. It will be funny when it goes straight back to the bitch who's making this all up. More desperation from the left to attack good men who stand up against evil.
Proud Boy Chairman Enrique Tarrio, who briefly ran for Senate in Florida, called the email campaign a “fucking bold face lie” on Parler and said he was in the process of contacting the FBI. He also suggested it was “some type of left wing ploy.” “Whoever did this needs to rot in prison,” Tarrio added.
Intense polarization, a surge in extremist activity and uptick in political violence has left election officials on high alert for possible voter intimidation this year. Those concerns became even more pronounced following the presidential debate in September, when President Donald Trump urged supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully.” When asked to condemn far-right groups like the Proud Boys, Trump responded “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
Proud Boys took his words as both tacit endorsement and marching orders, and almost immediately began working on a new line of merch emblazoned with “Stand back , stand by.” (Trump later claimed his comments were misinterpreted by viewers).
Despite the threatening language, the man said he wasn't really worried about the people behind the email.
"[I'm not] not particularly bothered given that I know they’re full of crap and how they got the data," the man told VICE. "But worried about how other people might interpret it."