DOBSON — Someone using sophisticated masking technology might think there’s little chance of getting caught when conducting a long-distance prank, but one Mount Airy boy has learned a hard lesson about “swatting.”
The youth concocted a hoax that led to a SWAT team storming a home in Lowell, Mich., after he had told authorities it had been broken into by six men armed with assault rifles who stabbed a girl there and were holding hostages.
This was an example of “swatting,” a recent trend in which someone makes a fake 911 call designed to initiate a law enforcement response — notably sending in a SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team. Entertainers such as Justin Bieber, Tom Cruise and Justin Timberlake frequently are the victims of swatting, which the FBI says is reported about 400 times a year.
But in the local case stemming from an incident last year, authorities were able to use intricate means of their own to track down the Mount Airy youth. He recently was tried in court and ordered to pay nearly $1,400 in restitution to two law enforcement agencies as a result.
“The world that we live in now, with computer forensics and electronic footprints that you leave everywhere you go — whether it’s online or with a cell phone — it’s much easier to track folks now,” Surry Sheriff Graham Atkinson said Monday.
Although the swatting culminated in the Michigan city, the boy was prosecuted locally on a charge of making a false police report since the call originated in North Carolina.
The youth has a Mount Airy address, but lives in Surry County, according to checks with city Police Chief Dale Watson and Lt. David Hamlin of the Surry County Sheriff’s Office.
Hamlin had only a vague recollection of the crime that was perpetrated in March 2013, and after checking with the Surry County District Attorney’s Office found that it was prosecuted in juvenile court in recent days. No records could be released due to the boy’s juvenile status, Hamlin said, including his name and street address.
People who are 16 or older are prosecuted as adults in North Carolina, which allows the publishing of alleged offenders’ names. The age of the youth involved in the swatting case is unknown.
Started With Skype
The crime occurred after the boy had met a girl in an online chat room via Skype, according to a Michigan television station that reported on the case. Skype is a type of peer-to-peer connection system in which Internet users can communicate over long distances through video or audio means.
Investigators say the Mount Airy youth apparently became disenchanted with the girl, a middle school student in Lowell, and decided to have her swatted. “Spoofing” technology typically allows perpetrators in such cases to mask their telephone numbers while those of the victims appear.
In this case, AT&T received a text late on the night of March 1, 2013 that a girl at the home targeted had been stabbed and her parents were being held hostage, the Michigan TV station WZZM reported. A youth minister who lives there and had been watching television opened the door to find his home surrounded by police tactical units — nine officers in all.
Law enforcement agencies must consider such threats real and respond accordingly, which not only creates the potential for someone to be killed but ties up valuable manpower on a bogus cal.
Authorities were able to build a case against the local youth by obtaining search warrants for online accounts, which led them to Surry County. A detective also accessed the boy’s Twitter posts, which revealed that he had swatted another person as well.
When he appeared in a recent juvenile court session, the youth was put on probation and ordered to pay the city of Lowell $1,237 in restitution and another $134 to the Kent County, Mich., Sheriff’s Department, according to WZZM.
Surry Atkinson said those amounts likely didn’t cover all the expenses arising from such a case, but added that there’s a lesson to be learned from it which should deter others from similar acts.
“You think you can delete things, but the forensics folks are able to retrieve them,” he said of computer-based crimes.
“Once you have sent it out electronically, it’s there for the world to see forever.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.