A day after announcing that she was falsely led to believe that she had been offered a teaching position at Harvard, journalist Nidhi Razdan on Saturday alleged the entire process was an elaborate plan aimed at “stealing my money and taking my personal data to misuse it”.

In a detailed account published in a blog on NDTV, Razdan said she fell for the sophisticated phishing attack, which comprised not only the exchange of phone calls and emails, but elaborate interviews, forged appointment letters, and “official” invitations.

“Back in June 2020, I had announced on Twitter that I was moving on from NDTV after nearly 21 years to join Harvard University as an Associate Professor to teach journalism,” she wrote. “I truly believed it was a terrific opportunity. But here I am, almost eight months later, devastated by the realisation that this entire process to ‘hire’ me; my ‘appointment’ to Harvard was all part of an elaborate and sophisticated phishing attack to access my bank account, personal data, my emails, my medical records, passport and my devices like my computer and phone.”

Razdan went on to give a chronological account of the entire process, and how she realised the “appointment” was nothing more than an elaborate ploy to access her personal information.

“In November of 2019, I was invited to speak at an event organised by the Harvard Kennedy School in early 2020,” she said. “One of the apparent organisers of this event contacted me separately to say there was a vacancy for a teaching position and would I be interested.”

Razdan said she decided to submit her CV, thinking there was “nothing to lose by trying”. A few weeks later she was “interviewed” online for 90 minutes, the journalist said.

“It all seemed legitimate, the questions were thorough and professional,” she added. “I did a basic google search and found a journalism degree programme being offered by the Harvard Extension School.”

The journalist noted that contrary to “what many are tweeting”, Harvard does have a school called the Extension School offering a Journalism Degree programme. “The actual programme is called the Master of Liberal Arts, Journalism degree,” she said. “The Extension School lists 500 faculty of whom 17 are categorised as journalism faculty. A number of these people are working journalists. I believed I fit this profile.”

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Journalist Nidhi Razdan says her Harvard University offer was fraudulent, calls it a phishing attack

In January 2020, Razdan said she received an email from an alleged “Harvard Human Resources person from what appeared to be an official Harvard email ID”, with an offer letter and agreement.

“The offer letter and the agreement appeared to be on a genuine letterhead with the University insignia, and contained the ‘signatures’ of all senior Harvard University officials who actually do hold those positions even today,” she added. “The emails from this individual were all marked to what appeared to be an official group university ID.”

The journalist added that the attackers also separately emailed her former employers at NDTV and others for recommendation letters, and that “official-looking acknowledgments were sent back to them”. They too did not think anything was amiss, she said.

“Over the next few months, many emails were exchanged between me and these alleged Harvard email IDs where they sought my personal information for a ‘work visa’”, Razdan said. “I was also sent an ‘official’ invitation to attend a faculty orientation in March 2020 but that was called off due to the pandemic.”

Razdan said she “honestly didn’t think anything of it” given the tumult caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“In June 2020, I quit NDTV and announced my decision to move to Harvard. Based on all the communication thus far, I had no doubts about the genuineness of the exercise. I was sent class schedules; details of the subjects I would be teaching; a detailed break up of my class.”

— Nidhi Razdan, NDTV

While the classes were to start online in September 2020, the attackers told her that the university had to postpone the classes until January “due to COVID”. “Again, I didn’t think anything was amiss,” Razdan said.

But eventually, Razdan said she started to get frustrated with the delays. “I had been told a work visa had been issued in the US for me which would be sent to me only when travel was required,” she added. “I would have also needed a visa from Delhi but it never reached that stage since no travel was on the cards immediately.”

It was only when there were repeated delays in her salary disbursement, which she was told she would get from September onwards irrespective of class schedules, did she begin to feel that “something wasn’t right”.

“It was all blamed on chaos due to COVID or IT failures,” Razdan said. “At one point they even sent me a bank transfer slip even though no money ever came... I still didn’t imagine this was a massive fraud but thought it was lack of coordination between university departments.”

In December, Razdan said she wrote to the head of HR at Harvard but didn’t hear back. Then in January she wrote to the office of the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

“It was only earlier this week that I heard back from them telling me there was no record of my appointment and that the people claiming to be their HR staff do not exist!” the journalist said

“I wrote back to Harvard expressing shock at this and urged them to take this matter seriously since there are people impersonating their senior staff and even forging their signatures on fake letterheads, including the Vice President of HR and their Chief Financial Officer. I also immediately wrote to those entities or organisations with whom I was associated and told them what had happened.”

— Nidhi Razdan, NDTV

Razdan added, “My lawyer read all the emails and realised that this was a massive phishing exercise, in all likelihood aimed at stealing my money and taking my personal data to misuse it.”

The journalist said that she has now filed a police complaint against the “gross criminal act”, and had shared all documents with the police. She said that she could have done “more due diligence” and that she was “very shaken by this and keep kicking myself for being such an idiot”

“In hindsight, I guess I never saw any cause for alarm because of the pandemic and the chaos and disruption it had caused the world over,” she added. “Also, because no one ever asked me for money, this was a very sophisticated attack. And that there is a lesson for me and for us all - never trust anything online.”

Razdan said she was relieved that she realised she was being duped “before any serious damage was done”. “If after all this the only thing I can be accused of is being stupid, then I’ll take it on the chin, learn from it and move on,” she added.