Thieves say they have stolen many years of Mitt Romney's tax records and are threatening to make them public unless the rich Republican presidential candidate – or someone else – pays $1-million in ransom.
Whether the heist is a diabolical blackmail scheme, a whole new dimension of political dirty tricks in the digital era or just a wacky bluff isn't clear, but the stakes are very high and the Secret Service is investigating.
Mr. Romney, among the richest men ever to run for president, has refused to release his tax returns, save for 2010 and a summary for 2011. That reticence has fuelled accusations that Mr. Romney used complex avoidance methods to drastically reduce – for many years – his taxes which, while perhaps legal, could doom his run for the White House if revealed.
In anonymous Internet postings, the thieves say an insider helped them gain access the building in which PricewaterhouseCoopers has offices in Franklin, Tennessee on the night of Aug 25. The company prepares Mr. Romney's tax forms. Once inside, the thieves say "we were able to gain access to your network file servers and copy over the tax documents for one Willard M. Romney and Ann D. Romney" dating back many years.
"The deal is quite simple. Convert $1,000,000 USD to Bitcoins," the purported thieves said in a Pastebin posting. "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."
Bitcoin, a "private" Internet currency favoured by those with intense desire for privacy and, police believe, criminals, are all-but-impossible to trace.
Similar messages, scrawled in felt pen and delivered along with encrypted flash drives – supposedly containing the now-encrypted tax files – were sent to local Republican and Democratic campaign offices in Tennessee. They were treated as hoaxes at first, but have now been turned over to federal authorities.
The Secret Service, once a branch of the Treasury and still charged with investigating some types of financial crimes as well as protecting the president and other key political figures, confirms it is investigating the alleged theft.
The thieves say they don't care who pays, adding if no one does, they will make the tax documents public at the end of September.
"This is an equal opportunity for the documents to remain locked away forever or to be exposed before the September 28 deadline," they said. "Whoever is the winner does not matter to us."
Two Bitcoin addresses were provided: one for payment to initiate an immediate disclosure of the tax returns, one to destroy them forever, both priced at $1-million.
The bizarre scheme was first reported by The City Paper in Nashville.
"We are aware of the allegations that have been made regarding improper access to our systems," said PricewaterhouseCoopers in a statement, adding: "We are working closely with the United States Secret Service, and at this time there is no evidence that our systems have been compromised or that there was any unauthorized access to the data in question."
So far, only one tantalizing shred of evidence supports the thieves' claim that they have actually breached security and accessed Mr. Romney's tax forms: Along with small flash drives containing the supposedly now-encrypted Romney files, the brown, padded manila envelopes sent to local party offices in Tennessee included "a scanned signature image for Mitt Romney from the 1040 forms," according to the another Internet message on Pastebin, a site used to protect anonymity.
Peter Burr, the local Democratic party chairman, confirmed to CNET, "The letter was pretty much the same as the original Pastebin post of Sunday but it also included a rubber stamp of what looked like Romney's signature at the bottom."
Investigators will want to know if the scan is of an actual Romney signature from a non-public tax form. If so, the heist isn't a hoax.