Leahy Asks Capitol Police To Investigate Hoax Email

07/06/10 5:50PM By John Dillon
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AP File Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
(Host) Senator Patrick Leahy has asked Capitol Police to investigate a hoax email that falsely reported that the senator died today.

Leahy joked about the bogus report. But he says it's a serious issue when someone spreads false information with a message that looks official.

VPR's John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) The hoax message said Leahy had died of cancer. It appeared to be a press release from Leahy's Senate email account. But in fact, Leahy is well, and the email was sent by an anonymous source and was labeled as if it were from his official account.

The 70-year-old Leahy was at home in Middlesex when the false alert was sent. He said he's feeling good, and that he and his wife Marcelle made light of the premature obituary.

(Leahy) "Well, Marcelle and I were kind of surprised to hear about this. And she said, ‘Does that mean I don't have to get dinner tonight?' Sort of like the old Mark Twain thing: The news of my demise is greatly exaggerated."

(Dillon) The hoax was sent to Vermont Public Radio, PBS and several other Washington-area news outlets.

Leahy said he's asked computer security experts with the Capitol Police to investigate.

(Leahy) "They will try to find out who did it, because they could very well have broken the law. And if that's the case, I would ask them to prosecute."

(Dillon) The senator said he's concerned that someone could use similar emails to spread false information about himself or other members of Congress.

(Leahy) "Because if they're able to hack into my system, they can hack into anybody else's system. And there are a lot of senators who would be terribly upset to have something like this happen. But I also want to make sure that they're not sending out things that are making people think I've taken this position on an issue or that position on an issue."

(Dillon) A Leahy spokesman says California Senator Diane Feinstein was apparently the target of a similar hoax over the weekend. Like the bogus announcement about Leahy, the Feinstein message came in the form of a fake, emailed press release.

Computer security experts say it's fairly simple to send emails with fake addresses that appear to come from an official source. Gary Kessler is a cyber security consultant and a member of the Vermont Internet Crimes Task Force.

(Kessler) "It's very easy to change the return address of an email that goes out.  If you were to send a letter to somebody, you put your return address in the upper left part of the envelope. Well, you could in fact put anybody's return address. Clearly, you won't get a response, but when people are sending out nefarious emails like this, they aren't looking for you to respond to the email and get back to them. Unfortunately, it's very, very easy to do."

(Dillon) Kessler said these bogus addresses are often used in spam messages or in a type of email scam know as "phishing" - which are designed to get a target to reveal personal data or credit card numbers.

He said it's not always possible to trace back where the message came from.

Meanwhile, Leahy has a full schedule this week, including visits to the Northeast Kingdom.

(Leahy) "Feeling pretty good. In fact I expect to be at Jay Peak and Hardwick tomorrow to do a number of things on my schedule. I joked earlier I didn't know whether to drive up in a hearse or our 12-year-old Buick. I think I'll take the Buick."

(Dillon) For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

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