Whew. Where do I begin? The year started with the devastating news that a job I thought I had got at Harvard University was not real. Several months earlier, I had quit my incredible job at NDTV, thinking this was an opportunity to try something new - as break from the non-stop, high-pressure news cycle of television. When I found out what really happened that cold January night, I was angry, shocked, disappointed and embarrassed. How could I have been the victim of such an elaborate scam? How did I not know? I had been in touch with who I thought were real people for a year; they had sent me documents, letters, contracts; they had written to my bosses with links for submitting their recommendations (they too didn't think anything was amiss). Back then, I wrote this blog for NDTV to explain what had happened.
When I found out what had really happened, I went public with it immediately. The decision was not easy, given the mockery and derision I faced online. But I wanted to be upfront with the truth. I never expected much from social media trolls, but even some of those I considered friends took digs at my expense. There was also a huge outpouring of support and love, which I will never forget.
The year has ended with an explosive investigation by The New York Times, documenting how it wasn't just me, but several women from the media, and one from a political party, who were targeted by the same person/group of people. What the NYT investigation has shown is how elaborate the whole operation was, how cleverly the perpetrators covered their tracks, leaving behind a mystery that still remains unresolved.
Within days of the revelation about the non-existent job, the Delhi police took cognisance of my complaint and filed an FIR. Their investigation is underway. Soon after that, the team at the NYT contacted me and said they wanted to do an investigative piece on my experience. Jeffrey Gettleman, Kate Conger and Suhasini Raj of the Times then spent nearly a year painstakingly putting the story together, examining reams of emails, dozens of tweets, Twitter handles and much more. They took the help of researchers at Stanford University and the University of Toronto, along with cyber-security expert Jiten Jain who examined my devices to determine if they had been hacked.
This is the upshot of what has now been found:
- The perpetrators targeted the other women before they came for me. Among those they went after were senior journalist Rohini Singh, columnist Zainab Sikander, BJP politician Nighat Abbass and an unnamed woman journalist working with a leading newspaper. By the time they contacted me, the hackers were "well-practiced" as the NYT puts it.
- Harvard did nothing to act on information they had received from Nighat Abbass - who sent them troves of emails, screenshots of fake Harvard documents and more that were sent to her.
- The university even refused to give a comment to the NYT on its probe.
- The scammers took "bolder steps to impersonate Harvard, buying a website in their name and setting up a server that allowed them to send messages stamped with Harvard's name."
They also copied employment documents from Harvard's official website.
But no one at Harvard reacted when I publicly announced I was leaving NDTV for the University. I had even tagged them in my tweets where I said I was joining Harvard to teach journalism.
Many months later, it was I who alerted them to the fact that something was very wrong. The pandemic also provided cover for many things which may have been obviously odd at other times.
Jiten Jain, whose company Voyager Infosec helped me in the immediate days following the crisis, went through my devices and found that my email account had likely been hacked and that there was possible malware on my laptop; he believes foreign governments may be involved.
I honestly don't know who did this or why, but I do know that this has really been a learning for me. It has been a difficult year, but I am proud I spoke up. So many people have contacted me about their own cyber nightmares and how embarrassed they are to talk about it openly for fear of being mocked. I want them to know there is nothing to be ashamed of when you are the victim of a crime. Those who think they are infallible - I wish them luck. Don't kick a person when they are down. It's not easy to admit you are human. This whole episode eroded my self-confidence and I repeatedly questioned my judgement and decision-making abilities.
But it is time to move on. I am never looking back. Because the best is yet to come. Stay tuned.
(Nidhi Razdan is former Executive Editor, NDTV.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.