A hoaxer who triggered a massive police response on New York's Long Island was engaged in an increasingly popular prank called "swatting," authorities say.
"It’s a nationwide epidemic right now, where people play video games, and if you lose the video game, you try to develop information about the person you're playing, and then we send this army of police personnel out," Long Beach Police Commissioner Michael Tangney told CBS New York. "In this bizarre world of swatting, you get points for the helicopters, police cars, the SWAT team, and the type of entry. It’s very sophisticated, and unfortunately it's also very dangerous."
Tangney said dispatchers received a call Tuesday afternoon from a person who identified himself as Rafael Castillo, a 17-year-old from Long Beach.
"I just killed my mother and I might shoot more people," the person said, according to police.
The threat prompted Nassau County police to scramble helicopters and send a SWAT team to Castillo's home, leading to a 90-minute standoff that involved more than 60 officers, some with guns drawn.
Castillo’s mother, 54-year-old Maria Castillo, was making coffee in the kitchen when police arrived. Castillo himself did not immediately respond because he was in his room still playing the video game — "Call of Duty" — with headphones on.
"He didn't realize anything was going on — he couldn’t hear anything," Castillo's brother, Jose, told the New York Post. "I told him, 'There’s a bunch of cops outside that are looking for you.'"
When he finally emerged, Castillo, a high school junior, realized he had become a swatting victim.
"I right away had an idea what it was, because I've seen it on the news," Castillo said.
Last year, Los Angeles Police Department officers responded to a rash of so-called swatting calls targeting the homes of celebrities including Justin Timberlake, Selena Gomez, Rihanna, Ashton Kutcher, Sean Combs, Russell Brand, Ryan Seacrest, Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber.
According to the Los Angeles Times, some of those calls came in quick succession:
At 3:15 p.m. on Friday, officers responded to a call of shots fired at Justin Timberlake's Hollywood Hills home but found nothing unusual, LAPD spokeswoman Norma Eisenman said. Less than two hours later, police were sent to actress Selena Gomez's home in Sherman Oaks after a caller reported "someone had been killed inside the residence and there was a threat to burn the home down." The report was false, police said.
In September, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law that makes people convicted of making false emergency calls liable for the full cost of the response. Other states, including Washington, Texas and Colorado, have seen a rise in swatting in recent years.
The FBI has been investigating such cases since at least 2005. In 2008, following the arrest of a "gang" of five so-called swatters, the bureau issued an advisory on the "new phenomenon":
Remember the 'phone phreakers'? The term hit our national consciousness in the 1970s, when a magazine reported on a small group of techie troublemakers who were hacking into phone companies’ computers and making free long-distance calls. Today, there’s a new, much more serious twist on this old crime. It’s called “swatting,” and it involves calling 9-1-1 and faking an emergency that draws a response from law enforcement—usually a SWAT team.
In 2009, Matthew Weigman, an infamous 19-year-old hacker from Massachusetts, was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison for years of phone-related conspiracies, including swatting:
In his plea deal with prosecutors, Weigman, who was born blind, admitted to a long criminal resume. Among other things, he confessed to conspiring with other telephone hooligans who made hundreds of false calls to police that sent armed SWAT teams bursting into the homes of their party-line enemies.
According to Wired, the FBI began investigating Weigman "after he staged a 2005 hostage hoax that sent police to the Colorado home of Richard Gasper, a TSA screener whose daughter refused phone sex with Weigman."
In 2012, police in Washington state said two teen gamers were victims of swatting. One, a 13-year-old from Rainier, was home alone playing on an Xbox when an anonymous 911 caller reported a hostage situation.
"Six deputies, with lights flashing and sirens blaring, raced over to the home and surprised the young gamer," KIRO Radio reported.
Two weeks earlier in Kingston, Wash., police received a call indicating a man had shot his 14-year-old daughter after finding out she was pregnant.
"Certainly this is something that would get law enforcement's attention in a nanosecond," Kitsap County Sheriff's Deputy Scott Wilson told KIRO.
While Long Island police "felt very early on" that Tuesday's call was a hoax, Tangney said, "we don’t take any shortcuts."
Investigators are now working to identify the alleged hoaxer.
"If we determine who made this call, there will be an arrest," Tangney told the Long Island Herald. "He did something so, so foolish, and so dangerous. I'm very angry — it’s a tremendous waste of taxpayer resources. It's a tremendous danger to law enforcement."