Hoax E-Mails Falsely Report Deaths of 5 Senators

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont was one of five senators whose deaths were announced in hoax e-mails.

    Will there be a Zombie Caucus in the next session of the U.S. Senate?

    It seems there are at least five undead members of that august chamber -- the offices of Dianne Feinstein of California, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont each announced the death of their senator earlier this week, only to recant.

    It turns out all three incidents were hoaxes. Phony news releases were crafted by unidentified culprits and e-mailed to media outlets. Through a hacking trick called spoofing -- making a message look like it is coming from one source while hiding its true origin – the messages all seemed to come from the senators’ offices. The New York Times said on its website that "a close look at the detailed header of the message makes clear that it did not originate from the Senate computer system but rather from an outside domain, 000.webhost.com -- a sign that government computers were not hacked."

    WTOP was one of the recipients of the Leahy message. A Leahy spokesperson later told the D.C. station that the message looked so authentic that Leahy’s staff first thought it had actually been sent from someone in his office.

    Vermont’s WCAX said Leahy is "alive and well," as are both Feinstein and Lautenberg. Leahy made light of the incident in a Vermont Public Radio interview but said the matter merited investigation.

    NBCWashington.com received a hoax e-mail Wednesday about Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's death from breast cancer, although she was actually addressing a Rotary Club in Texas. NBCSanDiego.com received a message about California Sen. Barbara Boxer's death, which looked like an official release from Boxer's chief of staff, Laura Schiller. Boxer's staff confirmed that the senator is alive and well, and Schiller did not send the e-mail.

    Is this just a joke in bad taste, or could the motive be more insidious? Four of the five senators are Democrats representing states with Republican governors. And the phony release about Hutchison described her as "an independent voice in the Senate ... working with both Democrats and Republicans."

    But of course, the hoax was easily disproven -- it’s pretty easy to prove you’re not dead -- so it’s hard to see the point.

    A U.S. Capitol Police spokesperson told Politico that police “"are looking into the hoaxes but declined to say how many there were or to provide any other details."