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Spoofing, swatting no laughing matter for law enforcement

POSTED August 19, 2011 7:45 p.m.

It was just before midnight when the Jerners awoke to a loud and persistent knocking on the front door of their Garden Lane home. Outside the door was a Turlock Police officer and he sounded pretty concerned and insistent on talking to the couple right away.

“He asked if we had kids, which really got me scared,” said Maureen Jerner. “I said yes they were sleeping in their beds. He asked if we had an 18-year-old son and I said no.

“Then he told us they had received a 911 call coming from our home of an 18-year-old who said his mother and father were fighting and that his father was hitting his mom.

“I told him I obviously hadn’t been hit and that our son was only 11-months old,” Jerner said. “That’s when he kind of leaned his head back and rolled his eyes and asked if we had ever heard of spoofing.”

The couple had just joined the ranks of countless individuals who have had law enforcement show up at their doorsteps as a result of bogus 911 calls.

Referred to as “spoofing,” the practice, which has been growing in frequency as of late, involves the use of a web program or service that allows a person to send an e-mail, text or phone call with false sender information. For example, a person can place a call to 911 and have the telephone number that shows up on the display correspond to an address completely different from where the call really originated from. In the Jerners’ case, the perpetrator made the 911 call appear as if it was originating from their address, though in reality it could have been coming from next door or across the country.

The Jerners’ experience was a nuisance, but for other individuals who have fallen victim to the more dangerous practice of “swatting” the experience can be life-threatening.

Swatting works on the same concept as spoofing, except the bogus callers report crimes in progress like a murder or hostage situation that will bring out the Special Weapons and Tactics team, hence the term “swatting.”

Such was the case when a 19-year-old Washington state man pretended to be calling from the home of a California couple. According to the FBI, the caller claimed to have just shot and murdered someone at the home. A local SWAT team arrived at the house and the husband, awakened by the noise, went out to investigate while his wife and two children slept. On the way he grabbed a knife from the kitchen. What he found was a SWAT team with assault rifles pointed directly at him. Fortunately the man was not injured, but the potential for the incident ending in bloodshed was high, the FBI said.

According to the FBI, the typical perpetrators of these scams are young, savvy computer hackers, and most frequently male. There is little to no monetary gain from the scam and it is most often done out of revenge or for bragging rights, the FBI said.

In 2010 a federal law was enacted to impose large fines and prison terms for swatting. In June the Federal Communications Commission started the Truth in Caller ID Act, which prohibits callers from spoofing “with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.”

Jerner believes her house and number were just picked at random. She also expressed sympathy for the officers sent out on these bogus calls.

“I feel bad for the officers because they obviously have better things to do than answer fake calls,” she said.

To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail sstafford@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.

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