Prank 911 callers draw dozens of police officers to hotels, homes or stores by claiming violent episodes are underway, startling unsuspecting civilians and wasting law enforcement resources, in what has become a national phenomenon known as "swatting," and NBC 4 New York's I-Team has obtained some of those chilling calls in its investigation of the disturbing trend.
Police in one New Jersey city dealt with two such calls last year. In November, teams of officers scrambled to the Embassy Suites in Elizabeth after a 911 caller pledged allegiance to ISIS and declared terror on the sixth floor.
"I have an AK-47 pointed at somebody right now, and I have bombs in my room," the caller warned.
The caller said he would detonate one of those bombs in 25 minutes and had already shot three of his hostages.
"I had to move the bodies because they were starting to stink and bleed all over the floor," the caller claimed.
Michigan’s Joe Schoenith was staying on the sixth floor of the hotel, but he never heard the gunshots -- nor did he hear the violent ranting of a terrorist. And there's a reason.
It was all fiction. But it didn't look that way, judging by the emergency response.
"There were police, SWAT teams with the full bullet proof vests and hard hats and M-16 rifles standing in the lobby," Schoenith said.
The hotel terror call was one of two emergency calls that kept Elizabeth police needlessly busy in November.
Ten days before the hotel prank, a bogus call summoned police to a home on Elm Street with claims of hostages and a shooting. When police showed up, only a pair of sisters were home. One of the women told investigators she suspected a man she’d been chatting with online may have made the call.
Swatting began with online video gamers pranking each other and then posting webcam videos of the ensuing response online. In April, a gamer called police to his opponent's Long Beach home, claiming to be a teenager who just killed his own mother. Long Beach Police Commissioner Michael Tangney said the response cost taxpayers more than $100,000. He also says two Nassau County police officers got into minor accidents rushing to the scene.
"How would you feel if someone were seriously injured or killed responding to your joke?," Tangney said.
The gamer behind the Long Beach swatting case remains a mystery. The caller who pretended to be an ISIS terrorist at the Elizabeth hotel is also unknown. The caller who claimed to have hostages on Elm Street remains unidentified as well.
In each of the unsolved cases, swatting pranksters are believed to have used phone “spoofing” --websites and apps that mask phone numbers. That means the voice on the other end of the 911 operator's line could be across the globe.
New Jersey General Assembly member Carmelo Garcia, a Hoboken Democrat, has sponsored a bill in the state that would ban phone spoofing and impose a fine of up to $20,000 on people who mask their phone numbers to “transmit misleading or inaccurate caller ID information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.”
"When you're now sending those resources to attend to that hoax, when there is another life at stake probably that needs that emergency attention, it's horrible, Garcia said.
Garcia's bill has passed the Assembly and is awaiting a vote in the state Senate. A similar federal bill sponsored by Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing) has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is awaiting a vote in the U.S. Senate.
Even if there are criminal penalties for masking phone numbers, it may be difficult for stretched-thin local police departments to invest the time and energy it takes to find the phone spoofers, authorities say. Often swatting calls are made over the Internet, which can allow the callers to not only mask their phone numbers, but their computer IP addresses as well.
Last year, the FBI arrested a 21-year-old video gamer who allegedly used anonymous SKYPE accounts to summon SWAT units to the University of Connecticut, Boston University and several high schools. The investigation leading up to that arrest involved connecting those anonymous SKYPE accounts to tweets from various Twitter accounts. It took FBI agents five months to close in on Connecticut’s Matthew Tollis. His defense attorney, Jeremey Weingast, declined comment except to say Tollis has not yet entered a plea on bomb threat and hoax charges.
Meanwhile, the FBI has yet to announce any progress in tracking down three of Tollis’s alleged co-conspirators, believed to have made swatting calls to Harvard University and the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, which replaced the building where school staff and first graders were massacred by a mentally ill gunman in 2012.
Tonya Bailey, a nurse from Neptune, New Jersey, says she's been the victim of swatting at least 50 times. Local police made an arrest in her case last November after an investigation that lasted nearly a year and a half. The swatting calls have finally stopped. Bailey believes the suspect, like so many others, used a phone spoofing app to fool police for so long.
"If they have the technology to make the call then why don't they have the technologies to trace the call?" she said.