Spoofing for legitimate purposes remains legal, adds Sims. "These services are intended for good use," he says. "For instance, the physician working from home who wants the number appearing on a patient's caller ID to look as if it came from his office. Unfortunately, crooks also use these methods to benefit them and their criminal conspiracies."
Filing a false report, via Internet, to an emergency dispatch center in order to deploy SWAT teams to a residence with occupants oblivious to the situation; an emerging trend by pranksters involving communication centers.
Technology plays catch-up
Swatting exploits weaknesses in the way the nation's 911 system handles calls from Internet-based services, with most call centers lacking the technical methods to identify them, states Roger Hixson, National Emergency Number Association (NENA) technical issues director.
Even if it were possible for call centers to identify IP addresses, the information presently lacks location data. "The Internet was never designed to carry location or subscriber information. The only information it needs is an IP address," Allen explains. "You can be at home, log onto your personal connection and make the call, or you can go to the public library and make the same call — the Internet doesn't care where that call came from."
Upgrading call centers to accommodate these new technologies by flashing an Internet caller's IP address might thwart fraudulent calls and is being considered, according to Hixson. "As we design next generation 911, which is IP network based, we are looking for opportunities to identify false calling," he says.
Further hope arises as the Internet community investigates methods for including location information in data packets transmitted across the Internet. Currently, Allen says the Internet only sends IP address and basic technical information, but eventually there may be a way to insert location information into that data and merge it with the 911 system.
But how this takes shape remains a mystery. "The question being pondered is how to add a location component to the overall system," he states. "How do we get people to put their location in? How is location described? What will it look like when we transmit it? Hopefully we can get these questions answered and come up with a solution that's better than what we have now."
Checks and balances
As technology plays catch up, mitigating swatting rests with dispatchers and officers. When these calls occur, it's critical dispatchers pay close attention to the checks and balances inherent in their jobs, states Lt. Lari Sevene of Colorado's El Paso County Sheriff's Office. Though the address may already be known, dispatchers should still inquire about the address of the emergency, reason for the call and specific identifiers to help officers navigate to the scene. Is it a street, an avenue or a drive? What kinds of vehicles sit in the driveway? How many houses is it from the corner of the block? These questions can trip up pranksters and poke holes in their stories. "If the caller says it's nine houses down and it's actually on the corner, that's a red flag. If there's a Chevy Suburban sitting in the driveway versus a BMW, that's a red flag," Sims points out. "It is incumbent upon dispatchers to ask these types of questions."
Officers should also query dispatch to aid them in assessing inconsistencies. But such discrepancies do not definitively prove a call is a prank, stresses Sevene. "When people are under stress, they may not be thinking clearly," she says. "We need to consider the human factor as well."
Stopping short of justice?
When told to investigate the prank call to the Bates' home, Sims' supervisor advised him to "figure out who did this because somebody almost got killed." He adds that's a critical message for every agency. "Agencies need to investigate these calls to the fullest," he emphasizes.
Technology exists to trace these calls. This starts at the dispatch center with the information it captured. If the caller used an Internet line, investigators can trace the call to learn its IP address. Services allowing IP reverse relay lookup help pinpoint a call's origin. Detectives can then serve warrants to appropriate Internet providers for subscriber information.