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FBI says Russia again tries to interfere in elections, and seeks Utahns’ help to stop such crimes

(Andrew Harnik | AP file photo) FBI Director Christopher Wray, shown on Nov. 5 2019, told Congress on Thursday that Russia is "very actively engaged" in trying to interfere in U.S. elections this year.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said Thursday that Russia is “very actively engaged” in trying to interfere with this year’s U.S. election and local FBI agents asked Utahns to watch for and report any suspicious activity that aims to disrupt or misinform voting.

However, these agents say they have seen no illegal interference in Utah so far and say local election officials appear to have adequate safeguards to protect their voting systems from cyber attacks.

“Overall from what I’ve seen, the elections are fairly secure” in Utah, said Paul Haertel, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Salt Lake City Field Office.

Local FBI officials held a news conference to give tips on how to avoid being tricked by disinformation just after Wray testified in Congress that Russia again is trying to sway voters.

“The intelligence community consensus is that Russia continues to try to influence our elections,” Wray said.

Unlike the last presidential election, when the most serious interference efforts involved hacking Democrats' emails and state election systems, Wray said Russian activity this year seems more limited to disinformation campaigns.

“We certainly have seen very active efforts by the Russians to influence our elections in 2020,” he said, through the use of social media, state media and other types of propaganda that so far has aimed to denigrate Democrat Joe Biden.

Locally, Haertel added, “We know other nations are taking a page out of the [Russian] playbook. We cannot let our guard down when it comes to protecting our elections while the threats to our election are constantly evolving.”

Casey Harrington, an FBI supervisory special agent in charge of a regional cyber task force, said, “We know that foreign adversaries, including Russia and China, would like to have an illegal impact on our American political processes. These groups may use cyber attacks to target election infrastructure or political campaigns to further their goals.”

He said the FBI has not seen any attacks this year on election systems or voter registration databases, although he said in the past some registration databases were compromised. He said the FBI gives ongoing guidance to election officials to help avoid that and identify threats.

But the FBI nationally has seen some disinformation this year, and Harrington says the agency works with social media companies to identify and stop them — although those firms make decisions on what material to remove.

Harrington offered two basic suggestions on how not to be tricked by any disinformation.

“One is to be aware — be aware that social media deception and foreign influence operations exist,” he said.

The second is: “Be informed. Know the origin of the information and seek multiple sources to make informed judgments. And, as always, report suspicious activity to the FBI.”

Drew Scown, an FBI supervisory special agent overseeing a fraud squad, said the FBI is also watching for other sorts of election-related crimes, including voter and registration fraud, schemes where fake groups purport to raise money for candidates or causes, civil rights violations and exceeding campaign finance donation caps.

He noted that in the past two elections nationally, the FBI saw attempts to suppress voting by such things as giving the wrong date or time for voting — or claims that people could vote by text or email.

“Anyone receiving notifications that they should vote by text or email, that’s fraudulent. They should let us know that,” Scown said.

Also he warns that trying to register or vote multiple times is a federal offense that the FBI takes seriously.

However, President Donald Trump earlier this month suggested that people in North Carolina stress-test the security of their elections systems by trying to vote twice.

“We encourage folks not to do that,” Scown said, “Voting more than once, obviously, is illegal.”

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