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Swatting: Hardly a prank, for victims or police

 

It’s a high-tech, extremely dangerous and highly illegal update on the phone prank.

It’s called swatting, and it’s been around in parts of the U.S. for more than a decade. Someone calls 911 and describes a murder or hostage situation in an attempt to get police to react.

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Its victims have described it as terrifying, and it has the potential to be fatal. At least two foolish pranksters will be in federal prison for a long time for doing it.

And it happened here recently. Twice in the same week, according to Albuquerque police. Here’s one story.

Barb Miller was in her Northeast Heights home Sept. 25 when she received a call from a neighbor saying police were outside. She went to make sure her doors were locked in case they were chasing someone through the normally quiet neighborhood.

When Miller checked her back door, sure enough, she could see police officers. But then she noticed they seemed to be focused on her home.

As she walked through her house, an officer she could see from a window seemed to be following her movements with his assault rifle. Then the red beam from his laser pointer crossed her eye.

Now, she was really scared.

Miller went into the kitchen and phoned her husband, who told her to call 911. She did.

“I was thinking about the federal investigation of our police force here in Albuquerque and about the people who have made a mistake while surrounded by police, were killed, yet innocent. The young officer with the AR continued to hold me in his sights. I found out later that he was not the only one; there were at least five rifles on me at the time,” Miller wrote in a letter to the editor. (You can read her account of the event on Page A9 in today’s Journal.)

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Fortunately, Miller kept her cool as much as possible under the circumstances, and with the help of a “very professional” 911 dispatcher, she was able to safely exit her home – minus the phone – and surrender to police a short time later.

She had done nothing wrong and was cleared after a search of her property.

Albuquerque Police Department spokeswoman Janet Blair described the incident as a “textbook case of good police work.” And a review of the 911 tapes and police video backs that up.

But Miller was left shaken and with very reasonable questions: Why my home? Why were so many guns pointing my way? What if they thought my phone was a gun?

It turns out the officers had good cause to be there: A man had called 911 saying he had just killed his wife at that address and was going to kill his child, too.

Miller had been “swatted.”

Miller says she had never heard of the practice and has no idea how her home came to be targeted.

“Swatting” traditionally has been a perverted way some online gamers get revenge on players who are better than they are. An incident of swatting in Littleton, Colo., was captured earlier this year and posted on YouTube by a professional gamer named Jordan Mathewson. He was at work and live-streaming as he was playing a war game with headphones on and heard the police only seconds before they burst through his office door.

According to news reports, the Littleton Police Department said a caller had “claimed to have shot two co-workers, held others hostage and threatened to shoot them. He stated that if the officers entered he would shoot them as well.”

Mathewson already knew about swatting and remained calm, though later he admitted he was “terrified.”

Swatting is not a harmless prank.

Here is something for anyone who may be thinking of making a copycat attempt to ponder.

In 2009, 19-year-old Matthew Weigman of Massachusetts was sentenced to more than 11 years in federal prison for a years-long swatting conspiracy. He had been swatting since he was 14 years old – the first time calling in a false hostage report to the home of a girl who had refused to participate in phone sex with him in an online chat room.

Miller says she has a lot of empathy for the police and the work they do. And she says she can understand why they had to respond urgently to the report. Still, she wishes there were a way to check on such reports that wouldn’t put innocent people in danger.

Blair said police are trying to identify the person who made the false report.

Let’s hope they’re successful, because there’s nothing that will put the brakes on such reckless acts like making a federal case out of this one.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to editorial page editor Dan Herrera at 823-3810 or dherrera@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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