By Julia Reynolds
Herald Staff Writer
A Salinas family whose apartment was surrounded by more than a dozen
heavily armed SWAT officers Wednesday night were victims of a high-tech,
long-distance scam known as "swatting," police said.
Around 9:30 p.m., a caller to county 911 operators claimed to be a
15-year-old boy living in North Salinas. He said three armed men with
AK-47 assault weapons were trying to break into his apartment.
As officers rushed to the 2200 block of North Main Street, the desperate
caller told operators he'd hidden in a closet because the intruders
entered the dwelling and were looking for him.
Police Cmdr. Bob Eggers said at least 15 SWAT officers surrounded the
apartments, along with several sheriff's deputies who arrived after
hearing frantic dispatches on their radios.
"Virtually the whole city went out there," Eggers said. "If you think
about it, three men armed with AK-47s? It paralyzed us."
Believing they still were in danger, police ushered the boy's mother and
sister out of the apartment under armored protection.
It was then, police said, they learned they'd been scammed.
It turned out the 15-year-old boy in the apartment had been "chatting"
on his computer with someone claiming to be a young man from Chicago.
The person apparently used software or an Internet calling system to
generate a phony call to Monterey County's 911 dispatchers, making them
believe the call really came from the boy in Salinas.
Teen had no idea
Police said the Salinas youngster had no idea a SWAT team was heading
toward his apartment until the boy's Internet acquaintance asked him
through the computer if he "heard any sirens approaching."
Coincidentally, Eggers saw a television news program a few nights
earlier about swatting, a new crime in which people disguise their
caller ID to elicit a SWAT response for a false emergency, often from
thousands of miles away. The callers are frequently young pranksters
picking random victims, but in some cases, individuals have been
"I realized that this was exactly what occurred to us," Eggers said.
But the night didn't end there.
Less than an hour after the SWAT unit rushed to North Main Street,
Eggers' phone rang. The caller said police hadn't responded to an
earlier burglary report.
"I asked where did the burglary occur. He gives the address we'd just
been to," Eggers said. The caller identified himself as the 15-year-old
"I said 'That's funny, we just spoke to him.' And he hung up," he said.
The swatter likely used Voice over Internet Protocol with a disguised
caller ID, police said. VoIP services allow users to make calls directly
from a computer, converting the voice into a digital signal that travels
over the Internet that is then changed to a regular telephone signal.
Even after Eggers spoke with the apparent swatter, calls reporting
emergencies at the same address came in twice more that night and police
say they had to keep sending out officers to be sure residents were
"What they're not getting is it leaves our city vulnerable and puts
people in harm's way," Eggers said. "It's an extremely dangerous
situation. It's beyond juvenile."
In other cities, similar pranks have occurred that, like the one in
Salinas, could easily have turned deadly.
An Orange County victim who thought he heard prowlers outside his house
charged at SWAT officers with a knife in his hand, said news reports.
The officers, who carried assault rifles and were accompanied by dogs
and a helicopter, handcuffed the man and his wife at gunpoint, while the
couple's two toddlers slept inside. Police said they thought they were
responding to a shooting with threats to shoot more victims.
For that incident, 19-year-old Randal T. Ellis of Washington was charged
with hacking, assault with a machine gun by proxy, false imprisonment
and falsely reporting a crime. Prosecutors say he faces up to 18 years
in prison. Ellis is scheduled for a preliminary hearing in Orange County
In a case being tried in a Texas federal court, four online chatters
were charged with conspiring to swat more than 100 victims around the
country. Stuart Resoff of Ohio pleaded guilty in that case and faces up
to five years in prison and payments and fines of $250,000 when he is
sentenced in March, U.S. attorneys said.
Disguising caller ID
To disguise their caller IDs known as "spoofing" swatters have either
hacked into others' phone systems or have used legal services such as
Spoofcard, which allows subscribers to disguise their caller ID as any
number they choose. The service even electronically changes the gender
of callers' voices if they choose.
Now some legislators want to shut down such activities, and the U.S.
Senate will soon debate S. 704, also known as the Truth in Caller ID Act
Police, meanwhile, are relying on their own computer geniuses to try to
beat spoofers and swatters at their game.
In the Orange County case, detectives were able to trace the crime to
Ellis through computer forensics.
Salinas police are hoping to do the same with their own swatter.
Officers said that after the SWAT operation Wednesday, the victim
voluntarily gave up his computer to police for analysis by the
department's computer forensic unit. Detectives are hoping they can find
the swatter's IP address buried in the hard drive's files.
"Everything you do on them is traceable," Eggers said. "Hopefully our
computer forensic folks are going to be able to find something valuable
On Wednesday, before the long night was over for emergency responders,
Eggers said the swatter struck a final time.
That call wasn't placed to 911 operators or police. It was to a local
restaurant, ordering $127 worth of pizza that was delivered to the boy's
Eggers said the family sent it back.
Visit InfoSec News