In January 2014, authorities in nearby Johns Creek received a report of a triple shooting, with a shooter holding a fourth victim hostage, and, quickly, the home was swarmed with a swift response from the local SWAT team, rifles drawn and ready for the worst.
When they arrived, there were no bodies, no hostages and no gunman. The entire situation was a hoax. The home had been targeted for an anonymous swatting call, or when a caller makes a false report of murder, hostage situation or other circumstances triggering a heavy police presence.
“It was a pretty significant call that I went to that turned out to be a hoax that turned into a year-plus-long investigation,” said Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office 1st Lt. Ben Finley, who was an officer in Johns Creek at the time. “But, a lot of people don’t realize the human side on this and how traumatizes these people to have this happen to them because a lot of people go through their entire life and never even have law enforcement contact, much less 30 or 40 of us show up at your home and point rifles and stuff at you and bring you out at gunpoint or lay you down and handcuff you or whatever the case may be, so it’s traumatizing, especially if one thinks their children or family members have been killed.”
In recent years, Finley has worked with District 26 state Rep. Marc Morris to find a remedy for such calls, and this legislative session, Morris introduced House Bill 118 – a bill that increases penalties and sentencing for those who make false service calls – which was approved by both bodies of the Georgia General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp in late April.
A rarity in passing legislation, Morris said the bill received “something close to overwhelming support.”
“I would say [we received support] from just about every corner, and once people understood, yes, this is a law enforcement bill, but at the same time, it’s more of a people bill,” Morris said, “because what we’re doing is keeping honest citizens out of danger, and that is our No. 1 goal.”
The incident in Johns Creek was resolved peacefully, but that is not always the case.
According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, in Rossville, in the northwest corner of the state, Mark Parkinson, who was armed and walking through the house after hearing his dogs barking, was killed by an officer outside his home after Dorothy Marie Glass – his daughter’s former mother-in-law – called police to report the daughter had threatened to kill her children and herself.
“If you call us and tell us that someone is at your home shooting your children and they’re going to shoot another one if they don’t get some money in a minute, I promise you’re going to have a large law enforcement response,” Finley said. “Our goal when we get there is to stop people from doing bad acts … the unfortunate part is if law enforcement arrives anywhere in this country, if you just happen to be that person standing there with a gun, there’s probably not going to be a lot of conversation going on with you due to the fact of the active shooter situations that we have all over the United States, all over the world.
“There’s not going to be a lot of talk. There is going to be action. More than likely it’s going to get you neutralized right there on the site.”
Even in the Johns Creek incident, though there were no injuries, there was an impact, which was made worse by a copycat call weeks after the first.
“The mother in this was absolutely the most distraught human being I’ve ever seen in my life,” Finley said of the first call, when the mother thought her children had been killed. “Even when we showed her her children with nothing wrong with them, she still couldn’t grasp it for a good 45 seconds.”
Morris said the calls can cause confusion outside of just the homes or businesses they target, such as a swatting call in Brookhaven.
“Over on the side, a gunshot happens,” he said. “What happened is a neighbor in another house goes to retrieve his weapon for personal protection, accidentally discharges it, now you’ve got police looking in another direction, so these things can boil out of control.”
Finley said even Forsyth County residents have been victims of calls.
“We’ve had some in Forsyth County,” Finley said. “We’ve had several up around here. Actually, when I was in Johns Creek, some of the detectives [in Forsyth County] were calling me going, ‘Hey man, we just had a swatting up here, what we need to do?’”
Challenges with the law
It can sometimes be difficult for law enforcement to find the source of swatting calls, such was the case for the Johns Creek call.
Unlike the Rossville call, the caller wasn’t connected to the family. The caller had been linked to at least 43 swatting calls in the country, including one that briefly shut down Disneyland.
The caller was discovered to be a teenager in Canada, which made prosecution even trickier.
“He had been swatting places all over the place. Schools during the daytime, evacuating school, homes. I could list all the stuff that this guy did; he was a true internet terrorist,” Finley said. “He lived in British Columbia, Canada. We ended up having to go through not only the FBI cyber unit in Atlanta, but through our U.S. attorney’s office, through our liaisons into Canada, to the [Royal Canadian Mountain Police], and that’s how we finally caught him.”
To make arrests easier, Finley said he wants to see similar bills approved in other states, at the federal level and even internationally.
“If I have some kid that did a bunch of stuff, say from the Netherlands or from Scotland or somewhere over there, and he did all these swattings through the United States and caused all kinds of havoc, we need to have something that we can cooperate,” he said, “because we know we’re not going to fly this kid from Europe all the way here. We’re going to prosecute him in his own country, but I need to have that understanding.”
While a swatting bill was previously passed in Georgia, part of House Bill 118 included fines for those who make the calls and dealt with how emergency personnel receive the reports, including by text message or online communication.
Finely said the Canadian caller was technologically savvy and able to hack into or socially engineer businesses – such as cell phone, financial or power companies – to change or shut down accounts and steal embarrassing pictures and information in emails and threaten to send them to victims’ contact list if not paid, including underage victims.
“This issue in and of itself is not a singular issue,” he said. “To get into this, it’s got so many tentacles off it: identity theft, identity fraud, credit card theft, credit card fraud, child pornography, criminal trespass, computer trespass, computer intrusion.”
On the other side, police can have issues charging those who make the calls under existing laws, which may have been written long before smartphones or the spread of the internet. Finley used stalking as an example, which only considers physically being followed and does not include being harassed online, and cyberbullying.
“The iPhone has only been around for 10 years; look at what’s changed just in 10 years,” Finley said. “Everything else changes, but our laws are stuck back here pre-cell phone.”
Finley said part of the process is changing perceptions about whether things that happen online impact real life.
“It’s not just a kid picking up a cellphone and making a prank phone call. It gets reported a lot of the time, people say ‘prank,’” Finley said. “This is not a prank when it involves the human cost this involves right here because you can’t say it was a prank when a human being died. You can’t say it’s a prank when somebody’s life has been affected by literally the same effect as [post-traumatic stress disorder] from this incident, where it is longstanding and for years after this they are still feeling the impact of this.”