US: Schools disrupted, in lockdowns, no thanks to swatting hoaxes
WORLD / U.S. – The first day of school this year at Westfield High School in Chantilly in Fairfax County, Virginia ended in a lockdown. The school was put under lockdown at about 3:30 p.m. as a result of a bomb threat. Approximately 200 teachers, students, and staff members were still in the building at the time, according to the Washington Post. Two days after the bomb threats at Westfield, it was reported that the school had received another bomb threat, but they were actually hoaxes known as “swatting.”
What is “swatting”?
Swatting involves someone calling in a fake report to police to receive a massive response from emergency units. The name “swat” comes from the desire to bring out the special weapons and tactics, or the SWAT team. The goal of swatting is to make individuals nervous or to cause disturbances. Rees Shapiro notes that the Northern Virginia Regional Intelligence Center says that these types of calls often originate from “‘anti-social, easily led or troubled teens (young adults) seeking social acceptance.’”
Swatting calls can be bad news for police officers because they don’t know if they are entering a genuine SWAT emergency, such as those at Virginia Tech in 2007 or Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. These types of hoaxes are expensive. They can cost a police department tens of thousands of dollars.
Anonymous call via Skype
Westfield’s first bomb threat was from an anonymous Skype number. The caller said someone was in the school with a rifle and explosives, and the caller wanted money. The second threat was made when a caller threatened the school. Police were sent to the school to ensure dismissal went smoothly, but no further deployment was used.
Swatting goes further than teenagers trying to get out of school for the day. The Federal Bureau of Investigation website recounts the 2009 case of Matthew Weigman, 19 at the time, who received over 11 years in federal prison for being involved a years-long swatting conspiracy. The experienced phone hacker worked with nine others to scam individuals’ personal information, “impersonate and harass telecommunications employees, and manipulate phone systems to carry out dozens of swatting incidents, along with other crimes.”
In 2007, a 19-year-old Washington state man was charged by California authorities after pretending to be calling from the home of a married California couple, saying he had just shot and murdered someone. A local SWAT team arrived on the scene, and the husband, who had been asleep in his home with his wife and two young children, heard something and went outside to investigate—after first stopping in the kitchen to pick up a knife. What he found was a group of SWAT assault rifles aimed directly at him. Fortunately, the situation didn’t escalate, and no one was injured.
“Spoofing” technology – where the 911 callers’ numbers are masked and instead the victim’s number is reflected on the emergency operators’ board – has prevented local law enforcement from identifying a hoax from a real threat.
No serious consequences when caught?
Depending on the severity of the threat made by the caller and the response required to handle the situation, the pranksters can face fines and potentially jail time. However, there are no known convictions or prosecutions for swatting hoaxes by offending minors. Arrests have been made, but no charges have been widely documented, presumably due to a lack of evidence and also their age.
Back in 2008, a swatter was convicted and sentenced to jail. The then 32-year-old Guadalupe Santana Martinez, a defendant in a swatting conspiracy that involved more than 250 victims, up to $250,000 in losses, and disruption of services for telecommunications providers and emergency response teams, was sentenced today to serve 30 months in prison and ordered to pay restitution of $24,706.73.
The FBI recently highlighted an arrest in Canada of a teenager who was suspected to be behind multiple swatting hoaxes, but no charges have been brought on the 16-year-old. Last week, a 21-year-old Connecticut resident was arrested on federal criminal complaints that he participated in multiple “swatting” incidents that targeted U.S. universities and schools. Investigations are ongoing.
Until an effective way to identify and deal with swatting is formulated, emergency departments are expected to assess every situation carefully, sieving through to identify the real threats. When lives are endangered, daily operations disrupted and strangers become victims, swatting doesn’t fit the definition of a harmless prank.
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