Once upon a time, before the age of caller ID, pranksters got their yuks by ordering pizzas delivered to your house, or maybe even prank-calling you directly.
Now, the practice has added a high-tech and violent twist that’s angering police and scaring the hell out of victims.
It’s called “swatting,” where a caller makes a fake 911 call and gets a SWAT team dispatched to someone’s home, school or business. It’s not a new trend, but two cases this week have helped thrust it into the spotlight.
Last weekend, cops kicked in the door of a Richmond Hill, Ont. home around 6 a.m., responding to a creepy call about a gun-wielding dad. Instead, they found a shocked family and no signs of violence.
Two days later, a fake 911 call put five Ontario schools into lockdown. Naturally, that provoked a massive police response, and they’re understandably ticked off.
"This is not a joke," Const. Lily Fitzpatrick told The Canadian Press. "This is a huge amount of resources that are deployed to an area because public safety is our number one concern. (The swatter is) not a hero, they're not funny, they've got nothing to be proud of."
Swatting’s been happening since at least 2008, and it really took off in the U.S. when celebrity-swatting became the prank du jour. Justin Bieber, Tom Cruise, Miley Cyrus, and Clint Eastwood have all had SWAT teams show up on their doorstep.
It’s also become a popular tactic for online gamers (surprise) because sometimes screaming insults over Xbox Live isn’t adequate revenge for someone killing your Halo avatar.
Last year, police nabbed an Ottawa teen who’d allegedly been working as a swatter-for-hire, taking online requests and swatting victims in Alberta, Quebec, Ontario, California, and Connecticut, to name a few. He was slapped with 60 criminal charges including public mischief, uttering death threats and conveying false information with intent to alarm.
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Swatters typically get away with it by “spoofing” their phone number — tricking caller ID into showing a different number, sometimes even the phone number of the victim themselves. It’s the same tactic used by shady telemarketers and authorities can’t do much to stop it.
So police are asking for help. They’ve released the audio of the Richmond Hill call in hopes the public can identify the creep on the phone.
Each province has different laws for making “frivolous or vexatious” 911 calls, but they all involve heavy fines and possible imprisonment. However, swatting and similar hoaxes can invite a criminal charge of public mischief, which carries a maximum five years in jail.