Regular school activities were recently disrupted at ten Oklahoma public schools following telephoned reports of active shooters. The calls to 911 sent armed law enforcement officers throughout Oklahoma to the schools in search of a gunman dressed in black reported to be shooting students.
Each of the incidents ended the same way: Responding officers searching in vain for a shooter who didn’t exist. All calls, which were almost identical in the wording used by the reporting party, turned out to be false alarms in line with a nationwide trend law enforcement officials refer to as “swatting.”
FBI sees an expansion of the scope of these incidents
“Swatting” is a term used for a call to 911 that falsely reports an active shooter situation or a home invasion where people’s lives are at risk. The calls are aimed at causing law enforcement agencies to quickly mount a large-scale and heavily armed response that frequently includes activation of special weapons and tactics (SWAT) units, thus giving rise to the term “swatting.”
According to the FBI, swatting began with calls targeting the homes of elected officials and other high-profile public figures. However, the efforts to deceive police and emergency services agencies have now become more organized, with increased technical sophistication that uses caller ID spoofing and social engineering to make the fake calls appear as if they are coming from the victims' phones. The FBI now reports that the targets of the calls have also changed from private residences to public schools, colleges, airports, and businesses.
An investigation into the sources of the calls made throughout the country earlier this year traced them to contacts created through legitimate companies offering users the ability to set up telephone numbers for making internet calls and texting. This was the method used to generate the telephone number investigators determined was the source of a series of swatting calls made earlier this year. The IP address showed the calls originated in Ethiopia.
Evidence of an organized effort
Evidence shows that swatting incidents result from an organized effort to cause disruption and chaos. An investigator referred to it as “an assault on the American way of life.”
Earlier this year, the U.S. Justice Department announced the arrest of the founder of a website suspected of facilitating the buying and selling stolen data, including stolen personal and financial data of individuals throughout the U.S. and internationally. According to the Justice Department, the website also served as a platform for the planning and carrying out of swatting incidents.
The ten calls that triggered the incidents in Oklahoma this month had similarities that led officials to suspect they were made as part of an organized and well-orchestrated effort. Some of the similarities described by a member of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol include the following:
· The caller in each incident had an accent and claimed to be a teacher.
· The description of the shooter in each of the calls was identical.
· Details given by the caller about the incident were similar in each incident.
Swatting incidents, such as those in Oklahoma, put people at risk; first responders must race to the scene of what they believe is an active shooter situation with multiple victims. Once at the scene, law enforcement officers enter the building with weapons at the ready, which creates a high-risk situation that could lead to shots being fired and innocent people wounded or killed.
What can people do to help?
Offenders engaged in swatting frequently rely upon email addresses they steal or purchase on the internet to hack into electronic devices, such as cellphones and security cameras, to make it appear to law enforcement authorities as though the 911 call originates from a victim at the location targeted for swatting. The average person can take steps to make it more difficult for offenders to acquire the access they need to execute their plan.
Protect your smartphone and smart devices used in the home or a business from hackers by taking the following steps:
· Use complex passwords.
· Do not use the same password for multiple accounts.
· Periodically change passwords.
· Make use of multi-factor authentication to access the internet.
Hacking is a crime. Report it to local, state, or federal law enforcement as soon as you become aware of someone stealing personal data.