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posted: 3/2/2014 6:47 AM

'Swatters' take false police reports to extreme

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The Indianapolis Star

CARMEL, Ind. -- It was like a bad dream for Hannah Chiasson.

The 22-year-old nursing student stood outside her family's Carmel home, staring in shock at an army of police officers in black vests pointing "big guns" at her, her father and her friend. A spotlight shone on her family's house.

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"I asked, 'Why are you pointing guns at me?"' she recalled. "'Why are you doing this?"'

Police didn't answer, she told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/1mD2qlU ). They handcuffed her, her father and her roommate, tears streaming down her face. Police forced the two women to walk down the street to an ambulance -- barefoot and still in their pajamas.

Chiasson's mother, Louisa Chiasson, was on her way home but had to turn around. Police had cordoned off her neighborhood. She drove to another neighborhood entrance, but it also was blocked. An officer asked her which house she lived in, then explained the situation.

We got a report of a shooting, the officer said. Your husband, daughter and her friend are safe.

Safe, but shaken up. The Chiasson family and Hannah's friend, who lives there, had been "swatted."

Like others around the country, the Chiassons were victims of a false report, one so extreme it requires a massive police response, often a special weapons and tactics, or SWAT, team. Whether reporting mass murders or hostage situations, "swatters" sometimes use technology that makes it look as if their calls originated at their victims' homes.

The pranks traumatize residents and, in at least one instance, resulted in an officer being injured. And with multiple officers responding, they are costly to the public and draw resources from legitimate police work.

It's hard to tell if swatting is on the rise. According to a search of Google trends, Web interest in the term increased last year, but that could be partly due to media interest.

Many celebrities -- including Tom Cruise, Ashton Kutcher, Rihanna and Justin Timberlake -- have been targeted during the last few years, according to media reports. Other incidents have been reported in Colorado, Delaware and elsewhere. California adopted an anti-swatting measure last year.

Local police officials say it has been rare in central Indiana. An official with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department said IMPD has never responded to such a call. Carmel police said the hoax call involving the Chiassons was only their second.

In Zionsville, multiple law enforcement agencies responded Feb. 16 to a purported hostage situation.

A caller told a 911 dispatcher he wanted police to deliver $100,000 in a clear plastic bag. "I have five hostages at my house at this moment. I have two AR-52s, AK-47s and C-4 (explosives) all around my house," he said, giving the address of a house in Zionsville.

The man gave police 45 minutes to deliver the money.

Officers from Zionsville, Whitestown and the Boone County Sheriff's Department rushed to a quiet suburban neighborhood east of Michigan Road. Zionsville police Capt. Doug Gauthier said five officers surrounded the home and peered in the windows to assess the situation. Fifteen other officers were on their way.

Officers didn't see anything unusual, so they asked a dispatcher to call the home and tell the residents to come outside. Then the officers heard fireworks, which they believed were gunshots.

The homeowner refused to come out. He told the dispatcher he and his family were being harassed by "two people from a Skype relationship gone bad." When told that shots were fired, he said "that's not true."

A police video obtained by The Star showed officers holding assault rifles, with at least one aiming an assault rifle over the top of a car. One of them shouted, "Zionsville Police Department!"

The dispatcher told the homeowner to come out with his hands where police could see them.

Because of a rash of calls they received earlier that evening, the homeowner didn't trust that the dispatcher was who she said she was.

"I don't feel safe right now is what I'm telling you," the reluctant homeowner said.

The dispatcher told the homeowner that officers didn't feel safe, either. She told him to hang up and call 911.

Meanwhile, officers were losing patience. "Tell him we have four heavily armed police officers in front of his house," one of the officers told the dispatcher.

"Open the door," one officer shouted, "or I'm going to bust the door down."

After calling 911 and talking to the same dispatcher, the homeowner agreed to come outside. He opened the door, arms outstretched.

"Seeing an assault rifle is an intimidating thing," he later told The Star.

The Star agreed not to use the homeowner's name because he feared for his family's safety. He said two people had called their house more than 20 times in the hour and a half leading up to the 911 call, threatening to "swat" them.

He said his 14-year-old son recognized the voices from his time spent playing the computer game Minecraft.

There were eight people in the house when police arrived -- including the man on the phone, his wife, their three teenage sons and three of their sons' friends. They all were required to step outside.

When police entered the home, the phone rang and a deputy sheriff spoke with the alleged pranksters. "If we find you tonight," the deputy said, "you're going to jail."

Gauthier, the Zionsville police captain, said the situation put the family, officers and public in danger.

One of the officers could have gotten into an accident while rushing to the scene. Or, someone could have been injured or killed during the tense situation at the home. Also, officers who respond to such pranks are unavailable for other police work.

"Obviously, it could've been a serious situation," Gauthier said. "It was dangerous all the way around. ... Thank goodness it turned out the way it did."

The homeowner said he is working with an FBI contact to pursue those who made the false report. False informing is a criminal offense in Indiana.

Eugene Spafford, executive director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security at Purdue University, said law enforcement usually can trace who actually made the call.

But he said it doesn't require advanced expertise or special equipment to alter a phone number.

Last year, a 12-year-old was sentenced to two years in juvenile detention after admitting he swatted Kutcher and Justin Bieber's homes, according to media reports.

Spafford said people engage in swatting for many reasons, including revenge, to annoy or for fun.

In 2004, a 14-year-old boy swatted a Colorado family after a girl in the home, whom he met in an online chat room, refused to have phone sex with him. The boy, Matthew Weigman, was sentenced in 2009 to more than 11 years in federal prison for a swatting conspiracy that had been going on for years, according to the FBI.

But police don't have the luxury of judging the veracity of a call in an emergency situation. Carmel police Lt. Joe Bickel said officers are trained to respond to every call as though it is real.

"You don't want to let your guard down or be less tactical in a situation where you have to be," he said.

The recent swatting incident in Carmel resembled some others elsewhere in the country in at least one respect. Bickel said someone contacted 911 through a system that turns typed messages into voice messages.

The caller claimed she was high, had killed her husband and son, and shot her daughter, who was "bleeding out as we speak." She said she had a shotgun in hand and would kill anyone who came to the house.

Nine police officers arrived at the Carmel home, with more officers and paramedics on the way.

After police evacuated the house and determined the call was a hoax, they released the Chiassons and Hannah's friend, apologized and explained what happened. Like the Zionsville family, Hannah Chiasson said she understands the situation police were in.

"If that was a real emergency, I wouldn't have wanted them to have responded any differently," she said. "I'd rather be uncomfortable, a little freaked out for a while."

Bickel said police still are investigating the situation and haven't determined a motive.

"This is more than a joke, in so many ways," Louisa Chiasson said tearfully. "There are so many lives put at risk when somebody does something like that. They have to understand that it isn't a joke. ... There's a lot of guns there. Something goes wrong, something goes off. You don't want to be in that situation unless you really, really have to be."

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com

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