Somebody Provided ‘Harvard’ Jobs to Identified Girls in India. It Was a Rip-off.

NEW DELHI — Nidhi Razdan was all set to journey to Harvard College to begin a brand new job, and a brand new life, when she acquired a shocking e mail.

A well-known Indian information anchor on the apex of her profession, Ms. Razdan believed she would quickly begin educating at Harvard, a dream ticket out of an virtually unbearably poisonous media ambiance in India.

She had advised the world that she was leaving the information enterprise for America and he or she had freely shared her most essential private info together with her new employer — passport particulars, medical information, checking account numbers, all the things.

However when she swiped open her cellphone in the midst of a January evening, she learn the next message, from an affiliate dean at Harvard:

“There isn’t a file of, nor any information of, your identify or your appointment.”

The e-mail closed: “I want you the perfect in your future.”

Ms. Razdan felt dizzy and nauseated. She had thrown away a high-flying profession in journalism and fallen into an intricate on-line hoax.

“I simply couldn’t consider it,” Ms. Razdan stated.

The hoax that ensnared Ms. Razdan exploited Harvard’s status, the confusion attributable to the pandemic, and her personal digital naïveté. On the time she went public, what had occurred to her appeared like a stunning however remoted incident. But it surely wasn’t. Ms. Razdan was certainly one of a number of outstanding feminine journalists and media personalities in India who had been focused, even after one of many ladies alerted Harvard and the general public concerning the uncommon cyberoperation.

The incidents raised questions on why Harvard — regardless of its repute for fiercely defending its model — didn’t act to cease the rip-off, even after being explicitly warned about it. Additionally they revealed how straightforward it’s for wrongdoers to cover their identities on the web, a danger that’s more likely to worsen because the expertise utilized in digital fakery continues to enhance.

The folks — or individual — behind the hoax had been relentless. They created a constellation of interlocking personas throughout Twitter, Fb, Gmail and WhatsApp to pursue the ladies for months at a time. In contrast to typical on-line fraudsters, they didn’t seem to make use of the private info they extracted to steal cash or to extort the ladies, leaving their final purpose a thriller.

Practically a 12 months later, it’s nonetheless unsure why Ms. Razdan and the opposite ladies had been focused. Though the scammers expressed assist on-line for the Hindu nationalist motion in India, they shed little gentle on their determination to trick reporters.

The perpetrators have efficiently lined their tracks — not less than, most of them. The New York Occasions reviewed non-public messages, emails and metadata the scammers despatched to the ladies in addition to archives of the scammers’ tweets and pictures that the scammers claimed had been of themselves. The Occasions additionally relied on evaluation from researchers at Stanford College and the College of Toronto who research on-line abuse, and from a cybersecurity skilled who examined Ms. Razdan’s laptop.

The identities of the scammers stay a secret.

“It’s not like something I’ve ever seen,” stated Invoice Marczak, a senior analysis fellow at Citizen Lab, an institute on the College of Toronto that investigates cyberattacks on journalists. “It’s an enormous quantity of effort and no payoff that we’ve recognized.”

One after the other, the scammers chosen their prey.

The primary recognized goal: Rohini Singh, an outspoken feminine journalist who had damaged some huge tales that highly effective males in India didn’t like.

Ms. Singh delivered a blockbuster article in 2017 concerning the enterprise fortunes of the son of India’s present minister of residence affairs. She is a contract contributor to a web based publication referred to as The Wire that’s among the many most important of the Hindu nationalist authorities in India. She has additionally amassed practically 796,000 Twitter followers.

In mid-August 2019, Ms. Singh acquired a Twitter message from somebody calling himself Tauseef Ahmad, who stated he was a grasp’s scholar on the Harvard Kennedy Faculty and from Ms. Singh’s hometown, Lucknow. They chitchatted about Lucknow after which he invited her to take part in a high-powered media convention. Harvard would decide up all bills.

She was intrigued. However she grew suspicious after Tauseef related her to a colleague, launched as Alex Hirschman, who wrote to her on Aug. 19 from a Gmail account moderately than an official e mail deal with. On prime of that, each Tauseef and Alex had phone numbers that weren’t based mostly in the US.

Alex and Tauseef then requested her for passport particulars and a few pictures, which had been for use for promotional functions.

Just a few days later, satisfied their entreaty was a rip-off, Ms. Singh ceased communication.

The following goal was one other feminine journalist, Zainab Sikander. An up-and-coming political commentator, Ms. Sikander campaigns towards discrimination towards Muslims, a rising downside underneath the Hindu nationalist authorities. She has additionally written and posted many important observations of the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

On Aug. 22, 2019, Ms. Sikander, too, acquired a Twitter message from Tauseef Ahmad, inviting her to take part in a high-powered media convention at Harvard. It was the identical message despatched to Ms. Singh, although neither girl knew the opposite had been focused.


Nighat Abbass, a spokeswoman for the Indian Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., was a target in an online scam.
Credit score…Rebecca Conway for The New York Occasions

Flattered and curious, Ms. Sikander started chatting with Tauseef on the WhatsApp instantaneous messaging and calling app. She wasn’t thrown off by the truth that his cellphone quantity began with the nation code of the United Arab Emirates, though he claimed to be within the Boston space. Perhaps he was a international scholar with Dubai connections, she thought. She remembers his voice: younger, with a South Asian accent, which she believed sounded Pakistani.

Identical to in Ms. Singh’s case, Tauseef related her to Alex Hirschman. What she didn’t know was that Alex and Tauseef had been possible pretend personas — a search of Harvard’s scholar listing confirmed no college students by both identify.

Ms. Sikander additionally didn’t know that Tauseef’s Twitter account was certainly one of a number of on-line personas that had been interlinked. Tauseef and Alex appeared so pleasant, sending her compliments — and confirmations for the flights and motels they claimed to have booked.

“This room and this lodge advantageous for you?” certainly one of their messages stated.

Nonetheless, one thing advised her to beware. When she requested for a proper invite from a dean, it by no means got here. Ms. Sikander then broke off contact as nicely.

On the time, India was dominated by a seismic information occasion: Kashmir. The Indian authorities had instantly wiped away the autonomy of the Kashmir area, a restive, Muslim-majority territory that has been the supply of a endless feud between India and Pakistan.

The Indian authorities was extraordinarily delicate about criticism of its transfer. It severed web service to Kashmir and pre-emptively cracked down on critics and potential critics, throwing greater than 2,000 Kashmiris in jail, together with the area’s prime politicians.

Ms. Sikander had written important items and posts concerning the authorities’s motion in Kashmir. Some analysts consider the scammers might have gone after her due to her trenchant views.

The following goal was one other feminine journalist working at a outstanding Indian publication, who spoke with The Occasions on the situation that she was not recognized. Suspicious concerning the scammer’s U.A.E. cellphone quantity, she rapidly broke off contact too. However the scammers didn’t hand over. By the point they communicated in November 2019 with Nighat Abbass, a spokeswoman for India’s ruling political social gathering, recognized by its acronym, the B.J.P., that they had copied e mail signatures from actual Harvard staff and swiped official letterhead from the college’s web site.


Across the similar time, they opened a brand new Twitter account underneath the identify Seema Singh, who recognized herself as a “coder” and claimed she was based mostly in Bharat, one other identify for India that’s most well-liked by nationalists who see “India” as a colonial time period. She despatched sexually aggressive messages, tagging Ms. Sikander and a number of the different ladies focused within the rip-off.

“You look so scorching,” she stated in a single tweet. “Can I be part of you in your bathe?” stated one other.

Seema Singh later up to date her profile, claiming to be a bisexual Deutsche Financial institution worker residing in Frankfurt. (A Deutsche Financial institution spokesman stated the financial institution had no staff by that identify.) She appeared intimately acquainted with Indian politics, continually commenting on the customarily uncooked divide between India’s majority Hindus and minority Muslims and calling out private connections that the ladies focused within the rip-off had with Kashmir.

Ms. Abbass didn’t discover the raunchy tweets from Seema’s account. Enthusiastic about making her first journey to America, she centered on exchanging emails and messages with Tauseef.


It was solely after the scammers pushed for passport particulars and different private info that Ms. Abbass determined she ought to verify straight with one of many Harvard directors included on the emails.

That administrator, Bailey Payne, a program coordinator within the workplace of Harvard’s vice provost for worldwide affairs, responded, saying the official invitation that appeared to have been despatched from her e mail deal with was pretend. When Ms. Payne requested Ms. Abbass if she want to share extra info, Ms. Abbass eagerly cooperated. She despatched in a trove — the cellphone quantity from the U.A.E., the emails, screenshots of the pretend Harvard paperwork and lodge reserving information.

But it surely’s not clear what motion, if any, Harvard took. Ms. Payne didn’t reply to requests for remark. Jason Newton, a Harvard spokesman, declined to touch upon what the college did with the knowledge Ms. Abbass supplied.

By the point the hacker or hackers reached out to Ms. Razdan that very same month, in late November 2019, they had been nicely practiced.

However they had been additionally attracting consideration. That very same month, Ms. Abbass tweeted a passionate video warning others to be careful for Tauseef and the rip-off. And in December 2019, Twitter customers in India accused Seema of faking her on-line persona. She responded by claiming to be a civil servant with the Indian Police Service and threatened to file complaints towards her accusers.

Regardless of the accusations, the account underneath that identify recurrently posted pictures it claimed had been of her. It’s unclear whether or not the pictures really depicted her or had been stolen — reverse picture searches for them turned up no outcomes.

Ms. Razdan, now 44, was one of the outstanding feminine Indian journalists of her technology.

Over a profession spanning greater than 20 years, she had lined India’s greatest tales because the nation remodeled itself into an financial powerhouse. She was well mannered however fearless, the anchor of the 9 o’clock information program on NDTV, certainly one of India’s most outstanding impartial information channels, a well-known face throughout a nation of 1.4 billion folks.

“She was our No. 1,” stated her former boss, Prannoy Roy, NDTV’s founder.

However by 2019, she was fried.

“It was a mad 12 months,” Ms. Razdan stated, citing the string of giant tales that broke, from a battle between India and Pakistan and nationwide elections to the profound reorganization of Kashmir. “I used to be mentally and bodily exhausted.”

She was additionally mercilessly trolled by India’s proper wing, like many impartial journalists are, and stated to herself: “If I don’t strive one thing new now, I by no means will.”

It was as if the scammers learn her thoughts.


Credit score…Tony Luong for The New York Occasions

The primary e mail arrived Nov. 14, 2019, from an earnest sounding scholar — Melissa Reeve — inviting her to a Harvard media seminar. She was then launched, by e mail, to a different scholar, Tauseef Ahmad. When he stated there is perhaps a journalism job accessible at Harvard, Ms. Razdan let her hopes soar.

“I assumed it might be the opening to a brand new world,” she stated.

The following factor Ms. Razdan knew, she was interviewing with somebody claiming to be Bharat Anand, the identify of an actual vice provost at Harvard. She by no means noticed him, although. The interview was by cellphone.

“That is the place I really feel I actually tousled,” she stated. “I ought to have insisted or not it’s a video name.”

The scammers had been taking bolder steps to impersonate Harvard. They purchased an internet site from GoDaddy,, in January 2020 and arrange a Microsoft e mail server that will quickly enable them to ship messages stamped with Harvard’s identify. In contrast to earlier house owners of the area, they opted for privateness safety that obscured their names from public registries of web site house owners.

She was then requested for references. Every of the folks Ms. Razdan enlisted acquired an official wanting e mail from with an online hyperlink to add a suggestion.

“There was a stunning Harvard protect,” Mr. Roy remembered. “I didn’t have the slightest doubt.”

Harvard says it fiercely protects its trademark, using software program to detect new web sites that infringe on its model, however Mr. Newton, the college spokesman, declined to say if it had detected The scammers continued to make use of it to ship emails, capitalizing on Harvard’s repute. Additionally they copied employment paperwork from Harvard’s official web site, utilizing them as fodder because the rip-off superior.

In February 2020, proper earlier than Covid-19 exploded internationally, Ms. Razdan was advised the job was hers. It paid $151,000 a 12 months, way over she was making at NDTV. She acquired a prolonged contract that included all the things from arbitration clauses to particulars about dental insurance coverage. She was even despatched details about how her new Harvard school ID would get her reductions at Boston-area museums. She may barely comprise her pleasure. In June 2020, she introduced to the world, through Twitter:

“I’m altering course and transferring on. Later this 12 months, I begin as an Affiliate Professor educating journalism as a part of Harvard College’s College of Arts and Sciences.”

Congratulations poured in, from a few of India’s greatest names, spreading the information even farther. Shashi Tharoor, an erudite opposition politician with thousands and thousands of Twitter followers, lamented, “Will miss you, @Nidhi.”

Nobody at Harvard — which has many college students and professors from India or who observe India intently — appeared to place two and two collectively: that Nidhi Razdan, the well-known journalist, was asserting that she had a job at Harvard when there was no such job.

On-line courses had been supposed to begin in September. Ms. Razdan was despatched a sheaf of types, all on Harvard letterhead, for her visa utility, wage funds and medical insurance coverage. The paperwork had been stolen from Harvard’s web site, the place the college made them publicly accessible.

Proper earlier than courses had been to start, she acquired an e mail saying there was a delay due to Covid-19. The scammers would use the pandemic many occasions as an excuse for delays or slip-ups.

Additionally they requested her to put in Staff Viewer, which is software program that allows computer systems to attach to one another. Staff Viewer would enable the scammers to entry recordsdata on her laptop computer, however Ms. Razdan didn’t know that. Attempting to be useful, she downloaded the software program.

The scammers performed off Ms. Razdan’s eagerness to attach with school members. A number of occasions they invited her to do a video name with Emma Densch, an actual dean at Harvard.

However the calls saved getting canceled on the final minute, every with a extra incredible excuse. As soon as she was advised that the dean needed to rush out to take care of a school suicide.

By December, Ms. Razdan started to get aggravated at what she thought was flakiness. She was additionally a bit peeved that she hadn’t been paid but. She reached out to officers in Harvard’s human sources division. They didn’t write again. She then emailed Ms. Densch’s workplace straight, asking concerning the canceled video calls.

Ms. Densch’s assistant wrote again that Ms. Razdan was by no means on the dean’s schedule.

The assistant then requested: Who had been you speaking to?

Ms. Razdan despatched in a flurry of correspondence, together with her signed contract.

By this level, she stated, she knew one thing was fallacious however she nonetheless had no concept she was being fooled.

“I simply thought these had been bureaucratic snags,” she stated. “Or delays due to the pandemic.”

That’s when she acquired the stunning e mail in the midst of the evening. She by no means went again to sleep.

She turned to Jiten Jain, the director of a cybersecurity agency in India referred to as Voyager Infosec, to carry out a forensic evaluation of her laptop computer and gadgets. Mr. Jain, who shared his findings with The New York Occasions, stated Ms. Razdan’s e mail account had possible been hacked. Worse, Mr. Jain discovered remnants of a suspicious installer file on her laptop, an indication that malware might have been put in.


Credit score…Rebecca Conway for The New York Occasions

Ms. Razdan went public, saying on Twitter and in a confessional article on NDTV’s web site that she had been scammed. Her disclosure ignited hypothesis about who may have been behind the assault. Different victims of the rip-off believed that they may have been focused by a international authorities, and even their very own.

“No different authorities would make investments a lot to embarrass Indian journalists,” stated Ms. Singh, the primary reporter the scammers tried to ensnare. “This authorities does it.” Ms. Singh pointed to her earlier expertise being focused by malware extensively believed to have been bought by the Indian authorities as proof of its willingness to tamper with the press. Authorities officers, together with the Ministry of Dwelling Affairs, didn’t reply to requests to remark.

Mr. Jain believed international governments might need performed a job. The suspicious file he uncovered on Ms. Razdan’s laptop contained an IP deal with that had as soon as been linked to a hacking group believed to be related to Pakistani intelligence.

Mr. Jain additionally found a number of different suspicious web sites that presupposed to be profession pages for different Ivy League universities, however had been registered in China, making him consider the rip-off that focused Ms. Razdan was a part of a broader operation.

“After all of the proof and technical evaluation of the gadgets,” Mr. Jain stated, “it seems to be a bunch of subtle actors working a focused surveillance marketing campaign.”

However the tech firms whose platforms had been exploited stated authorities companies had not performed a job.

In January, Twitter suspended Tauseef and Seema’s accounts, in addition to 4 others that the corporate stated had been related to them. The corporate stated it couldn’t publicly determine the opposite accounts as a result of it doesn’t share consumer knowledge until it might probably decide that the customers had been taking part in a state-backed marketing campaign.

“We completely suspended six accounts as pretend based mostly on our platform manipulation and spam coverage. There have been no indicators of the accounts being state-backed,” a spokeswoman stated.

A Fb spokeswoman stated accounts arrange by the scammers had been suspended. Fb, too, discovered no proof that this was a state-sponsored marketing campaign. A Microsoft spokesman stated that the e-mail server utilized by the scammers had been bought via GoDaddy, and that it, due to this fact, didn’t have fee particulars that might determine the individual working the e-mail server. GoDaddy additionally declined to determine the client.

“We take buyer privateness very severely and don’t talk about clients’ account particulars until supplied with a courtroom order,” stated Dan Race, a GoDaddy spokesman.

One other concept emerged: Maybe the ladies had been focused by a person, somebody ideologically aligned with the Hindu nationalist ruling social gathering in India and prepared to go to nice lengths to humiliate critics of the federal government’s intervention in Kashmir and those that spoke out towards the divide between Hindus and Muslims. On Twitter, the scammers’ Seema account, which was like an alter ego to the extra delicate Tauseef account, incessantly ranted about these points.

Miles McCain, a researcher on the Stanford Web Observatory, a coverage heart centered on abuses of the web, analyzed the messages and found that Alex and Tauseef’s Gmail addresses had been related to a Samsung Galaxy S8 cellphone. That small element may puncture theories that the ladies had been focused by a bunch of individuals, Mr. McCain famous — it is perhaps an indication {that a} single particular person was working each accounts from the cellphone.

A Google spokeswoman declined to touch upon the precise Gmail accounts. “After we detect {that a} consumer is the goal of a government-backed assault,” she stated, “we ship them a outstanding warning alerting them that they’re in danger.”

An evaluation of the scammers’ emails carried out by Citizen Lab revealed that the messages had been despatched from web addresses within the U.A.E., not Boston — a clue that appeared to suit with the U.A.E. cellphone quantity that Tauseef used.

However the IP addresses and Mr. Jain’s findings raised extra questions. Have been the scammers working from the U.A.E., Pakistan, China, or from inside India? Surprisingly, the emails didn’t comprise so-called phishing hyperlinks — a clue that may have revealed extra about how the reporters’ info was obtained and who was behind the intrusions

After studying she had been tricked, Ms. Razdan retreated from public view. She misplaced weight. She prevented mates. She turned to the Indian police, who’ve begun their very own investigation however haven’t made any findings public.

Identical to Ms. Abbass, she urged Harvard to analyze, emailing the college that “Somebody/group of individuals have been impersonating senior Harvard officers and forging their signatures, and should be delivered to e-book.”

She stated Harvard by no means wrote again.

Previously few months, Ms. Razdan has quietly begun to rebuild her life. She discovered a job educating public coverage at an Indian college and writes a weekly column for Gulf Information, a giant paper within the Center East.

Nonetheless, she spends lots of time by herself, rotating via emotions of anger, remorse and disgrace.

And she or he retains asking herself the identical query: “How may I be so silly?”

Haley Willis, Ben Decker and Erin Woo contributed reporting.