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Emergency hoaxes fool authorities

The Washington Post

Police in Montgomery County, Maryland, received an urgent message about 6:25 p.m. Saturday saying someone had been shot at Wolf Blitzer’s home in Bethesda. Officers streamed toward the CNN host’s residence near Congressional Country Club. They set up a perimeter.

But a dispatch supervisor was immediately skeptical, and a call to CNN confirmed it: The message was a fraud. Blitzer was fine. He was, in fact, out of town. The authorities were dealing with another case of “SWATing,” in which someone jolts police into action with a fake distress call and technological trickery.

Earlier this month, the place was Beverly Hills and the target was “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest. The caller told police that armed men were trying to break into Seacrest’s place; officers arrived to find nothing amiss. In March, it was Brian Krebs, an Internet security writer and former Washington Post reporter. The caller said Russians had broken in and killed Krebs’s wife. Fairfax County, Virginia, police, weapons drawn, handcuffed Krebs before they learned that the report was a sham.

Police and emergency communications specialists said the costs of such hoaxes can be tremendous. Scrambling teams of officers can waste tens of thousands of dollars worth of police time, and there are dangers inherent in speeding toward a would-be crime scene or confronting an unsuspecting, albeit innocent, suspect.

“If somebody’s shot, we believe they’re dead or could be dead, we have to get there fast,” Montgomery police Capt. Paul Starks said. “People are responding with lights and sirens, so there’s the potential for danger there.”

Moreover, he said, “you’re diverting resources that might otherwise . . . go elsewhere to respond and resolve an actual emergency.”

Roger Hixson, technical issues director at the Alexandria, Virginia-based National Emergency Number Association, said that there are no reliable statistics on SWATing, but “it seems like every couple weeks we hear about one. . . . It’s not a huge problem, but it’s not trivial either.”

Hixson said: “In some of the larger cases like this, the actual cost can be over $100,000 in equipment and time and that kind of thing. The bigger issue is those people and that equipment aren’t available for a real emergency if it occurs in that time frame.” Some officials want to toughen federal laws against making such false reports, he said.

The shifting nature of current Web, cellphone, text and other messaging technologies can make it relatively easy to fool authorities. Krebs wrote on his website, KrebsOnSecurity.com, that “the cop that took the report from me after the incident said someone had called 911 using a caller ID number that matched my mobile phone number; the caller claimed to be me” and said that Russians had shot his wife. “Obviously, this was not the case,” he wrote.

In the case involving Blitzer, the person or people behind the fraud wrote some form of text message, Starks said. The message was set up to seem like it was from Blitzer himself, and it included his address. It appeared to have been sent through a mobile phone company’s “relay” system, which is part of an arrangement to pass on urgent messages to the police’s emergency communications center, Starks said. But exactly where the message originated remains unclear, he said. “We don’t know where these people are. They could be in New Zealand,” Starks said.