• United States



Phone Pranks Gone Evil

Jan 09, 20083 mins
Critical InfrastructureCSO and CISOCybercrime

‘Swatters’ spoof caller ID, turn 911 into a weapon

It’s late. The kids are asleep, and suddenly there’s a rustling outside. You grab something to defend yourself, maybe a baseball bat, and quietly inch open the door to see who’s there. Suddenly you’re surrounded by automatic weapons. Men are yelling at you to get down on the ground with your hands behind your head.

No, this isn’t a home invasion. You’ve been swatted.

It happened on March 29, 2007, to an Orange County, California, resident, identified in court documents only as Doug B. According to authorities, an 18-year-old Washington man named Randall Ellis called Orange County’s 911 dispatch, spoofing Doug B’s telephone number and, over the course of a 38-minute telephone call, convinced authorities that he had murdered someone on the premises and was about to do it again.

Within minutes, fire, police and a helicopter team had been dispatched to the home of the Lake Forest, Calif., couple.

“They surrounded the home. Inside were a husband and wife and their two toddlers,” said Farrah Emami, a spokeswoman with the Orange County District Attorney’s office. “We’re lucky that they didn’t shoot him.”

Ellis is one of a handful of people who have been arrested over the past year in connection with an estimated 260 swatting incidents that have cost local authorities hundreds of thousands of dollars in wasted response effort. The bill for the Lake Forest incident alone ran in excess of $18,000.

And while swatting can be done quite easily (in one case, a caller simply blocked his CallerID and gave emergency dispatch a fake phone number) the swatters have also used some sophisticated social engineering techniques.

One convicted swatter, Guadalupe Martinez, would call an internal AT&T number claiming to be a service representative working in the field in order to scope out information on victims and sometimes even terminate their phone service, according to Detective Larry Cole with the Snohomish County Sherriff’s Office in Washington State.

Cole said that Martinez and his fellow swatters target people for two reasons: for kicks and to get even. “They had very limited social skills so they were kind of immature,” he said.

Martinez, who went by the nicknamed “Wicked Wizard,” would often swat victims as a way of settling the score for some chat-room slight, Cole said. “I think it was a power trip for him. It was his way of being the big man.”

–Robert McMillan of the IDG News Service blogs for CSO at Security Blanket.

br>- Opinion: “Truth, Lies and Caller ID: Do you rely on caller ID for identification? If so, you’re taking a big risk.”