Pa. police face challenges as 'swatting' prank continues to spread

Cases have been reported nationally since 2008

By Margaret Harding
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

NORTH FAYETTE, Pa. — Police in Western Pennsylvania say hoaxes across the country that lead heavily armed officers to innocent people's homes has hit the region, wasting law enforcement resources and threatening lives.

"The problem with this situation is it does put people's lives in danger, whether it's the officers or the public," North Fayette police Lt. Michael Hamm said. "It puts people's lives in danger for nothing more than a hoax."

There appear to have been at least two such pranks — known as "swatting" because SWAT officers sometimes respond — in the past month, police said.

Dale Hoag, 53, of North Fayette and his family became victims on Sunday. Police and fire units from North Fayette, Cecil and McDonald responded when a caller told dispatchers about 9 p.m. that he was Dale Hoag and that he had shot someone.

"They thought I killed my mother," said Hoag. "I thought, 'What did I do wrong for them to be wanting to talk to me?' "

North Fayette police said Hoag's son was the intended target of the prank.

"The people should be punished," Hoag said. "... I could've been hurt."

In addition to the officers, Hamm estimated 20 to 30 curious people showed up. No one was injured, and police resolved the incident in about a half-hour. Police are investigating.

"It just scared everybody," Hamm said.

Cases have been reported nationally since 2008, according to the FBI. Hollywood celebrities are among the victims, and a video of police bursting in on an unsuspecting computer user made the rounds on the Internet last week.

The Allegheny County Police SWAT team responded to an incident suspected to be a swatting hoax last month, Plum police Lt. Lanny Conley said. The intended victim appears to be a girl who was talking to someone through Skype, he said.

A person using a device that disguised his or her voice called a Pittsburgh police station about 10:15 p.m. Aug. 3 and claimed there were hostages at an address in Plum, Conley said. The caller provided enough information for officers to take the threat seriously, he added.

Police responded and used a loudspeaker and flash bangs to alert people inside the house before reaching the resident through an alternate phone number, Conley said. Police cleared the home about 4 a.m. Aug. 4, he said.

"The people in the address have no idea what's going on," Conley said. "The amount of responders that were tied up  and the cost  it's extremely large. The one thing we can't afford to do is have our guard down. You have to take everything seriously."

Police departments could not provide the costs of responding to incidents.

In the North Fayette and Plum incidents, police believe the callers were from outside the area.

Copyright 2014 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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