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Tuesday, Oct 16, 2018
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Extortion emails target Florida colleges, promising violence

TAMPA — Early Tuesday morning, the president of Hillsborough Community College received a rambling email outlining horror-movie violence to be inflicted upon HCC’s campus if certain payments were not made.

Across Florida, in Tampa and Gainesville and Tallahassee, other college and university presidents’ inboxes were lighting up with the same extortion threat, promising an inundation of false bombing and shooting threats until, the sender claimed, one would prove real.

It’s not clear yet how many institutions got the 1,250-word message, or whether it was limited to Florida. Many agencies are investigating, including campus police departments and the FBI, though few specifics are available at this early stage.

"We’re just encouraging the public to remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity that could represent a threat to public safety, and we’re deferring any campus security concerns to the campuses," said Andrea Aprea, public affairs specialist for the FBI Tampa Division.

HCC President Ken Atwater emailed students, faculty and staff on Wednesday to advise them of the suspicious message. He said "numerous counterparts" in Florida higher education got it, too.

"Unfortunately, emails of this nature are becoming increasingly common," Atwater wrote. "I do want to assure you, however, that all threats against the college are treated with the utmost gravity."

The University of Florida got the same message. So did the University of South Florida and Florida Gulf Coast University.

UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes said she was copied on emails referencing the threat at the University of Central Florida, the University of North Florida and Florida State, too.

"We get a lot of these kinds of non-credible threats," Sikes said. "This kind seemed a little bit more organized."

UF, like other recipients, alerted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

"After they conferred, they basically determined that this is a scam," Sikes said. "It does allow us to use it as a reminder that if people see something, they should say something."

The suspicious email is written so that it doesn’t make any reference to a specific campus or institution. It demands a payment of 1.2 bitcoin, or about $18,035 in the volatile, untraceable digital currency.

Should the recipient refuse, the sender threatens to wage a campaign of confusion, making repeated false threats of bombings and mass shootings.

"One of these threats will be legitimate. Which one will be a surprise," the email reads. "You will be forced to evacuate the campus."

The sender adds a dramatic twist: "Every night I will roll a single die. If a six comes up, I will instruct my compatriots to follow through on the attack and kill as many people as possible … It will be public knowledge that you failed to take this threat seriously."

The sender asked for payment by noon Wednesday. On the HCC campus, that deadline came and went.

"We are still here and have received nothing further," spokeswoman Ashley Carl wrote in an email.

Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected]

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