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Anonymous hackers claim to have Romney's tax returns, demand $1 million ransom to keep them private

Mitt Romney's tax returns are in the news again, this time purportedly "kidnapped" by hackers who are demanding a $1 million ransom.

The anonymous tax return thieves claimed Wednesday in an online ransom note that they were able to breach PricewaterhouseCoopers' network file servers through the accounting giant's office in Franklin, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville.

Once in the system, they were able to "copy over the tax documents for one Willard M Romney and Ann D Romney. We are sure that once you figure out where the security breach was, some people will probably get fired but that is not our concern."

If Romney wants to keep his taxes private, all he has to do is deliver the $1 million in digital currency Bitcoin form.

Or if someone else wants to see the returns, the hackers say those folks can do the same.

"Who-ever (sic) is the winner does not matter to us," says the online note.

If the deadline arrives without payment from anyone, the encryption key will be released to the public to unlock the documents. "The years before 2010 will be of great interest to many," said the note.

PricewaterhhouseCoopers denied any computer system break-in on the firm's Facebook page:

We are aware of the allegations that have been made regarding improper access to our systems. 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.

As well as via Twitter:

PriceWaterhouseCoopers Romney tax hack tweet

But, as the accounting firm acknowledged, the Secret Service is on the case.

And adding to speculation (or hope, depending on your political persuasion and thoughts on digital crime) that the claim could be valid was the delivery Wednesday to the Williamson County, Tenn., Republican and Democratic offices of packages containing a flash drive and a copy of the ransom note.

I think it's a hoax because:

  1. The ransom amount is pretty low given the information allegedly stolen. Romney is astoundingly rich and the donors who support him are no slouches in the wealth department either. If the candidate's tax returns were stolen they probably would be happy to pony up much, much more to keep them private.
  2. The deadline is too far down the line. Not that I'm a cybercriminal, but if I had the info, I'd give them a day or two to come up with the money. Giving them three and a half weeks to investigate seems to be asking to be caught. I would get in, get the data, get the money and then get out!

What do you think? Is the claim by an unnamed group of hackers that they have Romney's tax returns real? Or is it just someone stirring things up?

And if it is real, do you think someone will pay the ransom?

More coverage: You can read more about the alleged Romney tax return theft at The City Paper of Nashville (which broke the story), The Tennessean, National Public Radio's news blog The Two-Way, BloombergBusinessweek and Discovery News.

The Cryptocurrency Legal Advocacy Group (CLAG), a non-profit organization run out of University of Mississippi School of Law, also provides an analysis of Bitcoin in this possible extortion attempt.

If it's not a hoax, demanding payment in the digital currency "could make it prohibitively expensive for enforcement officials to track down desired individuals," write CLAG directors Matthew Elias and James Woods.

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