KYIV – When Artyom Vysokov received a text message offering him up to $ 10 million for information on Russian election disruption from a number used primarily to distribute spam and phishing messages, he thought it was “some sort of Scam”.
But then he saw reports from several Russian news outlets of other people getting similar messages on their phones, and noted that they would come from foreign attackers shortly after the U.S. State Department announced a new campaign to defend the American presidential election.
“I discovered I was wrong and it really is true,” Vysokov, who runs a blog about website monetization, told BuzzFeed News. “However, sending such text messages through a service that normally sends spam wasn’t the best idea.”
On Thursday, the Russians shared screenshots of text messages apparently sent by the State Department offering huge cash rewards for information about hackers trying to disrupt the November presidential election. Many of them – from residents of Vladivostok in the Far East and Yekaterinburg at the foot of the Ural Mountains to Vyshokov in Wolschski in southern Volgograd – have been summarized and shared by the Russian tech news site TJournal.
And they weren’t the only ones. According to Reuters, the Iranians received the same messages on their cell phones. In Russian and Persian, the text messages read: “The United States is paying up to $ 10 million for information about foreign interference in American elections.” They contain a link to the US Rewards for Justice (RFJ) program, which offers cash rewards in exchange for information about threats to US national security. For the Russians, the link jumps to a verified Twitter account with the Foreign Ministry logo created in February. There, Russian-language tweets offer readers more information about the program.
The texts came after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday the U.S. is now offering up to $ 10 million for information leading to the identification or location of an individual intervening on the direction or under the control of a foreign government U.S. Elections by engaging in certain cyber criminal activities. “
While many people who received the texts questioned their legitimacy, a State Department spokesman told BuzzFeed News that they were, in fact, real. “This is a global campaign in multiple languages,” said the spokesman. “RFJ has used this and a variety of other messages to educate the public about their rewards and program.”
In a Facebook post, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, made fun of Pompeo’s announcement and joked that many people would like to benefit from the offer. “Now the State Department’s website is about to fall from denunciations of its neighbors,” she wrote.
When the news of the texts spread on Thursday, she released another statement. “By asking the American special services to talk about interference in American elections for money, they are simply interfering in our lives,” wrote Zakharova. She accused Washington of acting against Russians in a manner similar to that which American intelligence officials had accused Moscow of. “What if not a real hybrid attack?” She said.
The State Department’s blanket SMS campaign follows Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 elections that cast a shadow over Donald Trump’s presidency.
Ahead of the November elections, Democratic lawmakers sounded the alarm in what they believe are Russia’s active attempts to meddle and urged the FBI to share information about the effort.
Of particular note to the Democrats is an investigation by Republican Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, into the work of Joe Biden’s son Hunter in Ukraine while Biden was the main figure in the Obama administration in the country.
Democrats claim Johnson used disinformation from pro-Russian Ukrainians in his investigation, an accusation the Republican senator denies.