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police & fire

‘Swatting’ stings emergency response teams

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

“Swatting” struck North Jersey this week, as scores of police evacuated an apartment complex and set up a perimeter around one unit after a caller told them someone inside was holding a shotgun to his sister’s head. Inside, it turned out, was a tenant who had no idea what was going on outside the door.

Prank calls are as old as telephones. But as techniques become more sophisticated, and the tense, dramatic nature of rescues get replayed over and again on TV and online, the stakes have risen dramatically.

Caller ID is no longer reliable. A hacker can pirate a number and call from hundreds of miles away. Authorities are still trying to trace the call that appeared to come from a Morristown apartment complex, creating a tense, two-hour scene.

The FBI has been tracking “swatters” for nearly a decade, as police fruitlessly chase reports of hostages being taken or bombs about to go off.

Earlier this year, a compulsive phone hacker who helped make hundreds of false calls that sent armed SWAT teams bursting into homes was sentenced in Dallas to 11 years in federal prison.

In another case, a 19-year-old Washington state man was charged after pretending to be calling from the home of a married California couple, saying he had just shot and murdered someone. The SWAT team was met by the husband who, hearing a noise, grabbed a knife. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Apart from prank calls from kids that have forced school evacuations, the phenomenon is relatively new to New Jersey.

The Morristown Police Department Emergency Services Unit and the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office Crisis Negotiation Team and Major Crime Unit responded to Thursday’s incident, along with the county sheriff’s Office Emergency Response Team, county Office of Emergency Management, county Mobile Command Response Team, the Morristown Fire Department, Morristown Ambulance Squad, the Harding Township Police Department and county Park Police.

“This kind of activity wastes significant resources, and more importantly, can lead to serious injury and/or death to police or an unsuspecting and otherwise law-abiding citizen who is the victim of this kind of prank,” Morris County Prosecutor Robert Bianchi said.

Methods of phone “phreaking” won’t be repeated here. But what’s well known is authorities’ concern over what the FBI earlier this year said is a significant increase in swatting. The crime not only creates a potential situation for a terrible mistake — it drains resources and diverts police at a time when a genuine emergency could be happening somewhere else.

In one five-year stretch, the FBI said it arrested five swatters who called 911 in more than 60 cities nationwide. Sporting events have been held up, hotels have been evacuated, and athletes, celebrities and public officials in some instances have been given extra security as a result.

Motive doesn’t matter. Safety does. Unless more sophisticated communications systems are developed, authorities could be chasing more red herrings, at an even greater cost.

Anyone with information about the crime is asked to contact the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office at 973-285-6200 or the county sheriff’s Office Crime Stopper Program at 973-COPCALL.

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