By Teresa Ambord
Just when you thought American politics couldn't get any more bizarre or sink any lower . . . it did. If the claims can be believed, information thieves have penetrated the walls of accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and taken hostages. But it's not like in the movies where victims are gagged and tied to a chair in a shadowy abandoned warehouse. These hostages are housed on flash drives in the form of federal tax returns. And the ransom sought is not $1 million in unmarked bills - the thieves want $1 million in Bitcoins, a hard-to-trace Internet currency.
The Secret Service affirmed that they're investigating a report that thieves had stolen the federal tax return of presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and his wife.
The Romneys' tax accountants, PwC in Nashville, Tennessee, received an anonymous letter accompanied by a flash drive, claiming to have copied the returns and demanding a ransom. A package containing a letter and a thumb drive were also sent to the Romney Tennessee campaign office and a similar package to Democratic headquarters.
Anyone who follows the presidential race knows that Romney's tax returns have been a focus of Democrats. Romney released his 2010 and an estimate of his 2011 return (the latter of which hasn't been finalized and filed yet and is expected to be released on September 28). Some onlookers believe the thieves may have taken on this alleged heist as part of the wave of citizen journalism that has been sweeping the country.
What are the chances the theft is real?
PwC spokesman Chris Atkins told CBS News "at this time there is no evidence that our systems have been compromised or that there was any unauthorized access to the data in question."
Franklin, Tennessee, Police Lt. Charles Warner told reporters there had been no alarms or reported break ins at the accounting firm, and there was no sign of forced entry at the five-story office building. However, the building doesn't have restricted access during the day, and there was no guard present.
Apparently, to prove the "thief" had indeed been inside the then-empty building that supposedly houses Romney's tax records, someone uploaded twelve photos of the PwC offices, without a human anywhere in site. The photos are meant to prove that the building is not secured if the photographer could wander around at night snapping photos. Of course, the photographer didn't actually enter the office. His only shot of the second floor, where the records are believed to be held, was taken from outside the building.
CBS News reported that the Franklin County chairman of the Democratic Party, Peter Burr, said he received a version of the letter and a thumb drive on August 27. Burr doubts the veracity of the claim but admits "it's conceivable."
To underscore their demand, an anonymous posting on Pastebin, a hacker document-sharing website, states that the tax records were stolen on August 25. It claimed that "after all available 1040 tax forms for Romney were copied", the thieves sent flash drives containing encrypted copies of Romney's pre-2010 returns to PwC, to the Republican and Democratic Party offices. Both have turned the materials over to the Secret Service.
Following is the "ransom note" posted on Pastebin:
Dear PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP
Using your Office @ 830 Crescent Centre Drive, Suite 260, Franklin, TN 37067 Telephone:  (615) 503-2860 we were able to gain access to your network file servers and copy over the tax documents for one Willard M Romney and Ann D Romney. We are sure that once you figure out where the security breach was, some people will probably get fired but that is not our concern.
All major news media outlets are going to be sent an encrypted copy of the most recent tax years that your company had on file since you did not have them all in a convenient electronic form. The years before 2010 will be of great interest to many. If the parties interested do not want the encrypted key released to the public to unlock these documents on September 28 of this year then payment will be necessary.
The deal is quite simple. Convert $1,000,000 USD to Bitcoins (Google if if you need a lesson on what Bitcoin is) using the various markets available out in the world for buying. Transfer the Bitcoins gathered to the Bitcoin address listed below. It does not matter if small amounts or one large amount is transferred, as long as the final value of the Bitcoins is equal to $1,000,000 USD at the time when it is finished. The keys to unlock the data will be purged and what ever is inside the documents will remain a secret forever.
Bitcoin Address to Stop Release:
Failure to do this before September 28, the entire world will be allowed to view the documents with a publicly released key to unlock everything.
And the same time, the other interested parties will be allowed to compete with you. For those that DO want the documents released will have an different address to send to. If $1,000,000 USD is sent to this account below first; then the encryption keys will be made available to the world right away. So this is an equal opportunity for the documents to remain locked away forever or to be exposed before the September 28 deadline.
Who-ever is the winner does not matter to us.
Stay tuned. With weeks to go to the election, there's no telling how much weirder this could get.