'Swatting' Calls Put Communities At Risk
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Emergency services across this country are dealing with a growing problem: prank 911 phone calls known as swatting. People call in to claim that a serious crime is under way, serious enough to summon a bomb squad or a SWAT team. The calls about fake emergencies have real consequences.
Here's Todd Bookman of New Hampshire Public Radio.
TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: On February 12th, around 10 a.m., a 911 call comes in detailing a vicious crime in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: "My dad was stabbed."
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: He thinks his father was stabbed?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yes, ma'am. "Please help. I don't know what to do."
BOOKMAN: The 911 dispatcher is heard speaking with what's called a relay operator. The supposed victim is using his computer to communicate; the service is meant for the deaf and hearing-impaired.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: He said six men with guns.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Men with guns. And he's in the closet currently and they just shot his mother. Do you know how old this caller is?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I don't. I don't know, ma'am. I can only type with him...
BOOKMAN: Dispatch immediately alerts Police Chief Bill Oswalt.
BILL OSWALT: It's somewhat unbelievable. You know, it's just fantastic. This is a small town, we don't get that kind of call. So you tend to question whether it's real or not.
BOOKMAN: Still, every Jaffrey officer responds and the state police send back-up - six squad cars in total. But the chief's gut is right on this one, the call isn't real. The prankster's goal: to have a SWAT team or all available units respond.
This swat targeted 25-year-old Anthony Acevich. Earlier that day, he was playing a video game online and bragging about his performance to fellow gamers.
ANTHONY ACEVICH: Talking trash to somebody, yeah, would probably be the best thing to say.
BOOKMAN: Acevich thinks a gamer found his address online and made the prank call. After searching his home, police left the scene in under an hour. The only fallout: the officers' wasted time.
The Jaffrey incident isn't unique. In recent months there's been a wave of high-profile swats nationally.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT")
BOOKMAN: "Entertainment Tonight" there. Clint Eastwood and Paris Hilton have also been targets.
There are no national statistics on the number of swatting hoaxes, but the FBI has been monitoring these types of calls for the past five years.
Special Agent Kieran Ramsey says it's easy to imagine a scenario in which a misunderstanding leads to an injury, or worse.
KIERNAN RAMSEY: First responders are put at risk, the general public is put at risk. And the victims where the law enforcement response is happening are certainly at risk, because no one knows the legitimacy of the actual situation.
BOOKMAN: To try to stem the tide of pranks, state lawmakers are taking action. Michigan recently passed a measure stiffening penalties for fake 911 calls. In California, a proposed bill would earn perpetrators a minimum 120 days in county lock-up. But that's if someone is actually caught.
While there have been some successful prosecutions, relay services are tough to trace. The same goes for swats made through computer calling services or disposable pre-paid cell phones. It takes surprisingly little sophistication to pull these off.
And Trey Forgety, with the National Emergency Number Association, says that with 600,000 calls each day to 911, operators can't easily screen out a fake.
TREY FORGETY: We start from a position that every call must be treated as if it is a legitimate call for help.
BOOKMAN: And so law enforcement will continue responding, from Beverly Hills to the quiet town of Jaffrey, New Hampshire, where no home invasion was in progress and no suspect has been identified for the hoax.
For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.