NEW YORK (FOX 5 NEWS) - Police across New Jersey have responded to dozens of phony 911 calls in recent months. The prank is known as "swatting" and investigators say it's often difficult to catch those responsible.
Robert Ianuale has been swatted multiple times. The first time was in April. He happened to be live streaming on his webcam when officers burst into his Keyport, New Jersey, apartment and the camera continued to roll. "Out of nowhere I hear in the back 'Police!' I'm just like what? I turn around and I see police officers coming through the door and three or four with automatic rifles and bullet proof vests," said Ianuale.
Ianuale said the officers told him they had received reports he shot his girlfriend and was holding hostages.
Swatting is officially defined as calling in a fake threat and triggering a deployment of a SWAT team and it has become an epidemic in New Jersey this year.
"I don't think there is a single county that hasn't been hit by swatting incidents," said Richard Frankel, the Special Agent in Charge of the Newark Bureau of the FBI. Swatting initially gained popularity among online gamers who would call police on an opponent in an act of revenge or as an attempt at distraction but Frankel says it's no longer exclusive to that community. "Everyone is making these calls now," Frankel said. The targets range from individuals like Ianuale, to schools, to mosques and even a Pizza Hut.
SAC Frankel estimated there have been around 80 incidents so far this year across New Jersey. Some towns like Freehold, Holmdel and Princeton have been hit especially hard. Local municipalities tell Fox 5 each swatting call can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars in resources. And then there's the issue of safety, explains Frankel.
"You'll have a SWAT team come in there thinking there is an active shooter based on what happened in the past-what's truly happened at schools, at institutions, at campuses," he said, adding "I'm surprised there hasn't been something of the equivalent of a friendly fire at this point." But despite the often massive law enforcement response when the calls come in, arrests are rare. It's not for lack of trying. The problem is technology is making it easier than ever to make web-based blocked calls. Easily accessible apps can spoof numbers to look like they're coming from a different caller.
"The technology exists where 911 is not just a phone call anymore," explains Mark Fletcher, an emergency number professional and the Chief Architect for Public Safety solutions at Avaya Telecommunications.
Fletcher explains many swatters don't actually call in their threats to 911 phone lines. Instead they call non-emergency lines via the web or send in their threats using internet text services designed for the hearing or speech impaired, tactics that make it easier to block the call's origins. Swatting has become so widespread the Federal Communications Commission stepped in and issued an order that would block non-verified 911 calls to IP relay services.
He explains a person could contact a relay service and say: "I need to call 911, who are you? None of your business, by law they had to put the call through to 911 and that's what they're stopping they're saying only verified users are allowed to use that service"
FCC documents show that when the unverified calls were blocked on one cell carrier for a year, "swatting calls were...completely eliminated"
Still, the people behind the hoaxes keep coming up with other ways call in the threats, which is why authorities hope stiffening penalties will help. "To some people it's fun and games until your brought into court and facing jail time," SAC Frankel said. As of this summer swatting is now a second degree crime in New Jersey, punishable by up to 10 years of jail and a fine of 150 thousand dollars.
Fletcher has an idea for another solution. "I think a better deterrent would be a reward. I've talked to a bunch of people in the industry, we're all in agreement the best way to find these people swatting are by their friends giving them up."