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FBI Launches Investigation into Racist Email Sent to Thousands of Harvard Affiliates

Numerous Harvard affiliates received a racist email sent to their University email accounts on Saturday and Sunday.
Numerous Harvard affiliates received a racist email sent to their University email accounts on Saturday and Sunday. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Camille G. Caldera and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: June 21, 2020, at 7:30 p.m.

Thousands of Harvard affiliates received a racist email to their Harvard University email accounts on Saturday and Sunday from an account identifying itself as Equity Prime Mortgage.

The email — shared on Twitter by two Black Harvard professors, Braxton D. Shelley and Robert F. Reid-Pharr — stated that Equity Prime is “a lender for whites only,” and contained a racial slur and a reference to lynching. The email was also sent to affiliates at Stanford University and the University of Michigan.

Harold Reid — a media strategist representing Equity Prime Mortgage — wrote the company “recently learned that an organization has obtained a list of emails from an outside source that includes students and administrators from higher education institutions to deliver false information on behalf of the company.”

“The information was used by the unknown organization to fraudulently apply for loan applications on behalf of the individuals impacted,” Reid wrote in an emailed statement.

Reid added that Equity Prime Mortgage is working “closely” with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to determine who is responsible for the cyber-attack.

The company has gained national attention in recent days for firing the stepmother of Garrett Rolfe, the white police officer in Atlanta charged with murdering Rayshard Brooks.

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay wrote to faculty that she received the email and that the Harvard University Police Department is currently investigating the incident.

“Early this morning, many members of the Harvard community, myself included, received an anonymous racist email message, whose vile language invoked the brutal history of lynching and sought to sow fear and undermine our sense of belonging,” she wrote. “The University has already taken steps to block the originating email account and has forwarded the message to HUPD for investigation.”

“The message is both personally threatening to those of us who received it, and an affront to the values of our school,” Gay added.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow apologized to Harvard affiliates in an email Sunday afternoon, urging them not to open the message if they received it.

“If you have received and read the message, I am sorry,” he wrote. “It is abhorrent and flies in the face of everything we stand for. Most importantly, its violent and abusive language comes at a time when many members of our community are already suffering deeply. I know I speak for everyone when I affirm that we stand together: A racist attack against one of us is an attack against all of us.”

Shelley said the email was “extraordinarily painful and revelatory.”

“I thought that what was more painful than the hateful, racist words and the racial epithets in the note is also the way that the message taps into the cruel reality of America — that lending practices have been one of the most extreme sights of systemic inequality,” he said.

Reid-Pharr said that such racist and white supremacist attacks against academics are “common.”

“Faculty of color and others often receive this type of abuse and then manage it alone both because we’re trying to just do our jobs and because the institution has not provided effective means to address these matters,” he wrote in an email.

“My point is that the real responsibility for attacking this problem lies with the senior administration, not the individuals being victimized,” he added.

On Twitter, Reid-Pharr shared a copy of an email he sent to President Lawrence S. Bacow and Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 in which he said this is the third racist attack he has faced in his two years at Harvard. He noted that Bacow responded “positively.”

“The time has come for all members of the Harvard community to stop sweeping these serious problems under the rug,” Reid-Pharr wrote. “Some members of the community regularly receive racist threats and harassment. The truth is out. Now the only question is what the response of the folks in whose names these noxious actions are performed will be.”

Shelley agreed that it is up to Harvard to “push back” against racism.

“I think it will continue to be important that the University finds ways as a community to push back against really evil, toxic ideas and practices that are circulating around,” he said.

Bacow wrote that HUPD and Harvard University Information Technology are both investigating the incident.

“Thus far, we have learned that the email services of Equity Prime Mortgage were compromised, and the large-scale effort also targeted at least two of our peer institutions,” Bacow wrote. “We work continuously to try to protect and insulate members of our community from such vile and offensive messages, but our ability to do so is limited by the technology available to us—work made even more difficult when external vendors are compromised.”

Dean of the Kennedy School Douglas W. Elmendorf wrote that the email — which he said impacted over 150 Kennedy School affiliates and thousands more across the University — was “part of a sophisticated attack that compromised a leading email service.”

“My heart goes out especially to our Black colleagues who received the abhorrent message and to everyone who has been hurt by this racist attack,” Elmendorf wrote. “We all need to say, loudly and clearly, that Black Lives Matter—and we all need to live those words.”

Harvard Law School Dean John F. Manning ’82 wrote the school has taken “immediate steps” to block further transmission of the message.

“This racist email and all it stands for are abhorrent and run counter to the most deeply held values of the Harvard Law School community,” he wrote. “I am outraged by the ugliness and hatefulness of this message and condemn anti-Black racism and racism of all kinds.”

Mark Moloughney, the chief technology officer at Equity Prime Mortgage, said that the attack occurred using a contact form on the company’s website for individuals who want more information about loans.

He theorized that the attackers filled out the form with the email addresses of faculty and affiliates, and then pasted the racist statement into the part of the form that asked for their name. He said they may have used a bot to write thousands of emails at a time.

Screenshots of the emails posted to social media show a comma after the racist sentence, suggesting that it was in lieu of a name.

Moloughney said that Equity Prime has taken down its site and removed all its forms, but has not deleted any information and is turning it all over to the authorities.

“It’s unfortunate that this happened,” he said. “That by no means defines what we do as an organization. It’s completely against us. So we want to be very clear in calling that out as not what our company expects and delivers.”

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at camille.caldera@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at michelle.kurilla@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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