A man who claimed in 2012 to have gained access to the tax returns of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and demanded $1 million in bitcoins as payment to withhold them from the public was indicted Wednesday on charges of extortion and wire fraud.
From the Department of Justice press release:
Michael Mancil Brown was indicted today by a federal grand jury in Nashville, Tenn., for allegedly engaging in an extortion and wire fraud scheme involving former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s tax returns, announced Acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and Todd Hudson, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Secret Service, Nashville Field Office.
Brown, 34, of Franklin, Tenn., was charged in U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Tennessee with six counts of wire fraud and six counts of extortion.
The indictment, which can found below, explains that Brown falsely stated he had gained access to the PriceWaterhouseCoopers system and then posted two messages to public Pastebin pages, offering the documents to whomever contributed a million dollars in bitcoins. The messages were contrived in such a way as to lead the public to believe that he had hacked into the network or otherwise stolen the tax returns, with some assistance.
The incident occurred in August 2012, and Brown subsequently posted the threats in September. One of the postings was addressed to “All Interested Parties,” while the second was posted specifically addressed to PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. One of the Pastebin pages has since been deleted, but I had captured and included one in this earlier post. An excerpt from that Pastebin post read:
The deal is quite simple. Convert $1,000,000 USD to Bitcoins (Google if if you need a lesson on what Bitcoin is) using the various markets available out in the world for buying. Transfer the Bitcoins gathered to the Bitcoin address listed below. It does not matter if small amounts or one large amount is transferred, as long as the final value of the Bitcoins is equal to $1,000,000 USD at the time when it is finished. The keys to unlock the data will be purged and what ever is inside the documents will remain a secret forever.
Failure to do this before September 28, the entire world will be allowed to view the documents with a publicly released key to unlock everything.
Brown subsequently sent separate packages, each containing a flash drive and a letter outlining his demands, to the offices of both PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Williamson County Republican Party, both in Franklin, Tennessee.
Brown’s claims seemed highly dubious at the time and drew widespread speculation from the hacker community, including tech journalists and commenters on popular websites.
General reaction from many in the security and technology communities, as well as astute readers on popular sites like Reddit, indicates that the claim is likely a scam. To start, no proof that Romney’s tax records are actually in the hacker’s hands was offered in the posts. Secondly, the explanation as to how the information was obtained seems implausible, according to Julia La Roche of Business Insider, who said the claim is “almost certainly nonsense.”
“An anonymous post on Pastebin asking for Bitcoins? That’s basically a parody of hackers,” La Roche said. “Furthermore, the description of how the tax returns were purloined is implausible.”
Brown’s threat came after months of heated political debate over Romney’s tax returns, as Democrats and left leaning media were placing increasing pressure on the former presidential candidate to release the information. Critics of Romney tried desperately to make the issue a crucial highlight in the campaign, ramping up rhetoric into a heated frenzy.
I don’t think it’s unfair to speculate that the public attention and widespread false accusations against Romney could have easily played a role in Michael Mancil Brown’s motives and the selection of his targets. Had his claims been true, and demands not been so ludicrous, an enterprising political operative or “journalist” might have found value in such a scoop.
Such is the sorry state of politics today. Hackers, fake hackers and news hijackers have all become part of the mix.
Ultimately, Romney disappointed his opposition when he not only released his prior year’s tax returns (which showed he did in fact pay taxes and donated quite a bit to charity), but he also provided an extensive summary of his and his wife’s taxes for more than the last two decades.