Swatting: The cyber version of pulling a false alarm
About 60 emergency responders descended on a quiet street only to find that the call was a hoax
By Mari A. Schaefer
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Philadelphia — It's called "swatting," the cyber version of pulling a false alarm, and a Delaware County family was its latest victim.
On Wednesday night, a dire call routed from Utah came in to the county 911 center: A man living in the 100 block of Cascade Road in Springfield had just shot his children, had barricaded himself in the house, and was threatening to kill his wife.
About 60 emergency responders, including a SWAT team, descended on the quiet street. They evacuated six houses and surrounded the dwelling in question.
Based on what the responders saw, they suspected a hoax, Springfield Police Chief Joe Daly said.
But they took no chances, he said. They flashed a light into the house, catching the attention of a young boy, who alerted his father.
When the man walked outside, police tackled and handcuffed him. The house was then evacuated and searched.
"After the initial shock wore off, [the family] realized we were victimized as much as they were," said Daly, who worried about the effect the event could have on the family's three youngsters. "They understood why we did what we did."
The family said it would make no public comment.
The initial call to the 911 system was relayed through a Salt Lake City company that helps the hard of hearing communicate by phone, Daly said.
Identifying the caller may prove arduous, as a number of police departments across the country have found.
In one example, Lt. Gary Seefeldt of the Lower Paxton Police Department, just outside Harrisburg, said he was sitting down to Christmas dinner last year when a dispatch alerted him to a call from a local drugstore. The caller claimed she needed cleaning supplies because she had just killed her child.
The hoax cost the department holiday overtime pay "in a year we just don't have it," Seefeldt said.
He said the department had a prime suspect: a woman originally from Philadelphia who lives in Detroit. Seefeldt said the woman had used a service provided by a search engine to mask the identity of her computer address.
"We have a rock-solid suspect, but we are missing an electronic link," he said.
After the Christmas swatting, Seefeldt said, he received about 15 calls from other police departments in Philadelphia and outside Washington that had had similar calls, allegedly from the same woman.
Five swatters in Dallas called more than 60 cities nationwide between 2002 and 2006 with hoax emergencies. The cost of disrupting telecommunications providers and sending police scrambling to the scenes was more than $250,000, according to the FBI. The five were apprehended and received federal sentences of up to five years in jail and were ordered to pay restitution.
In Springfield, the fake call was not directed specifically at the family, Daly said.
"We used to know who the bad guys were," he said. "Now we are chasing them through cyberspace, and it is very difficult."
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