Pranksters turn to technology to fake emergency calls

NORWALK - Two Los Angeles County Sheriff's stations were recently victims of pranksters making hoax emergency calls, a growing national problem of callers reporting fake crimes on trace-less phone calls.

It's called "SWATing'' -- a way to manipulate cellphones or computers to display a fake phone number on 911 calls as they arrive at police dispatchers. Some pranksters are using third-party computers to mask their identity as they call in reports of shootouts or other violent crimes.

The L.A. County Sheriff's Norwalk office fell for such a call last Wednesday morning, the Long Beach Press-Telegram reported today.

In Norwalk, a man talking to the sheriff's emergency dispatcher said in a distressed voice that a woman with him was having trouble breathing in the alley behind a Chinese restaurant on Rosecrans Avenue. A few minutes later, the situation escalated from a medical emergency to a homicide -- the caller said
he had shot the woman and would shoot deputies if they arrived.

Ten shots rang out on the phone call, and a few minutes later another 10 shots were heard.

The caller said he was watching deputies from the CVS Pharmacy roof, about one block east of the restaurant, and hung up.

"In the first few minutes, we were convinced the call was real. But when the deputies pulled up to the scene, they didn't hear any shots.'' Capt. Patrick Maxwell told the Press-Telegram. The 29 minute-long call was a hoax.

Detectives believe the same caller perpetrated another hoax emergency call to the Lomita's Sheriff's station on Aug. 18.

In March 2007, the Orange County Sheriff's Department's SWAT Team swarmed an unsuspecting family's home and expected to find carnage from a drug-fueled murder. The family and officers were pawns in a game orchestrated 1,200 miles away in Washington by a teenager bent on terrifying a random family of strangers.

"The 911 system is not set up for this,'' Roger Hixson, technical issues director for the National Emergency Number Association, the 911 system's industry group, told the Press-Telegram. ``There's no technological way to deal with this yet.''

Still, Gary Allen, editor of Dispatch Monthly, a Berkeley-based magazine focused on public-safety communications centers, told the newspaper that phony calls are difficult, but not impossible to trace -- thanks to help from regional and federal computer-crime task forces.

"Prosecutors have been dropping the hammer on these criminals who are caught,'' Allen told the Press-Telegram.

The newspaper reported that Randal Ellis, the 18-year-old Washington teen who made 185 calls to 911 operators nationwide, including the Orange County Sheriff's Department, was recently sentenced to three years in prison.