The calls come in. There’s a panicked person breathlessly reporting an armed person or persons in a local school. Sometimes students or even the caller have been shot. Sometimes specific room numbers are named. A name and a return phone number are provided, if the caller doesn’t hang up first.
And then law enforcement mobilizes, schools are locked down, students and teachers hide and parents and guardians worry until police and deputies and SWAT can mobilize to evacuate the building and do a room-by-room search to find… nothing.
That phone number? Usually out-of-state, often registered as belonging to someone with no idea it had been used.
It’s called “swatting” and while it’s been an occasional problem around the world, in the past month it’s become a fast-growing trend. On Oct. 11, a school in Sarasota and multiple schools in Miami-Dade, Broward, St. Lucie, and Collier locked down after receiving calls. South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster called for an investigation after 18 school districts reported hoax 911 calls last Friday. USA TODAY found at least 30 active shooter false alarms and threats made at schools in one week last month and WIRED reported more than 90 false reports of school shooters during three weeks in September.
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Here’s what you need to know.
What is swatting?
“Swatting” is making a hoax call to law enforcement in the hopes of deliberately causing a large police or SWAT team response. Sometimes it’s aimed at a specific person, sometimes it’s just randomly done to cause chaos and tie up resources.
Many early instances of swatting were against gamers streaming their play online with a webcam, which meant the hoaxsters might be able to enjoy watching police break down the door behind the hapless victim. It quickly became a way to harass anyone the caller wanted to antagonize and possibly cause harm.
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Is swatting illegal?
Yes. Issuing a threat over social media, by text message or through e-mail is a federal crime (threatening interstate communications). People posting or sending such threats can receive up to five years in federal prison, or they can face state or local charges.
You can be charged with a variety of things such as conspiracy to commit access device fraud and unauthorized access of a protected computer, misuse of 911 systems and other related crimes.
Is swatting dangerous?
Aside from reports of active shooters traumatizing students, staff and parents, anytime law enforcement must respond to a false call of an active shooter or mass casualties, there is the chance of accidents.
In 2017, California resident Tyler Barriss made a swatting call reporting a fake hostage situation after arguing with a fellow gamer playing “Call of Duty.” He gave an address of an innocent, unrelated person who police ended up fatally shooting during their response. Barriss was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
“A crash injured a Georgia police officer who was responding to a falsely reported school shooting at a middle school Sep. 13,” said Jay Farlow, spokesperson for the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) in an email. “An upset parent punched a window at a Texas high school September 19 while waiting for access to his child after a false shooting call at the school, leading officers on scene to apply a tourniquet.”
They also drain significant resources from schools and local authorities and pull law enforcement attention away from actual crimes and emergenc.
Why can’t police catch swatters?
They can. and do, but it can be time-consuming. Swatters often use software to falsify phone numbers and caller ID, and they call from out-of-state, which complicates investigations.
Police tracked one caller who had made four separate swatting calls to Ohio schools about armed gunmen wearing body armor shooting students to a phone number in California, where they found a 66-year-old man in “very poor health” who said he didn’t have that number anymore.
Are these swatting attacks connected?
Authorities haven’t publicly said the incidents are related, but experts say these intentional false reports have similarities. Their origins can be difficult or impossible to trace, but waves of false alarms are often the work of disgruntled pranksters trying to disrupt school or malicious bad actors trying to sow fear. And such hoaxes seem to increase around this time of year with students returning to classrooms.
“A red flag… is when you start seeing a chunk of these very similar threats in multiple cities in one area or region or state, and then others in another state. It’s usually a red flag for what they call swatting,” said Kenneth Trump, a school safety expert.
Is this swatting from a TikTok challenge?
While many local law enforcement and news media have suggested this is due to a TikTok challenge, no TikTok videos have surfaced calling for it.
Is the FBI investigating swatters?
They’re helping. The FBI does not investigate cases of swatting, leaving that to local law enforcement, but they will provide assistance.
In a release sent after a high school in Texas was evacuated due to a caller falsely claiming that ten people had been shot, the FBI said: “The FBI is aware of the numerous swatting incidents wherein a report of an active shooter at a school is made. Similar incidents have occurred recently across the country.
“The FBI takes swatting very seriously because it puts innocent people at risk. While we have no information to indicate a specific and credible threat, we will continue to work with our local, state, and federal law enforcement partners to gather, share, and act upon threat information as it comes to our attention. We urge the public to remain vigilant, and report any and all suspicious activity and/or individuals to law enforcement immediately.”
Contributor: Jeanine Santucci, USA TODAY
C. A. Bridges is a Digital Producer for the USA TODAY Network, working with multiple newsrooms across Florida. Local journalists work hard to keep you informed about the things you care about, and you can support them by subscribing to your local news organization. Read more articles by Chris here and follow him on Twitter at @cabridges
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: What is swatting? False active shooter frighten communities, cause chaos
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