PRINCETON: ‘Swatting’ threats to schools believed to be coming from the electronic gaming community (Updated)

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Police and district officials said Thursday that they believe the phoned-in “swatting” threats to the local public schools and other places nationally are coming from people in the electronic gaming community engaged in a contest in which they score points for how much havoc they cause.
Princeton police Chief Nicholas K. Sutter and Superintendent of Schools Stephen C. Cochrane addressed parents about the swatting phenomena that has targeted district schools 10 times since April. So far, none of the threats have been carried out, but they have disrupted school life and forced law enforcement to direct manpower hours responding to and investigating them.
“What I feel very confident in telling you is that the ones that we’re experiencing this year are not emanating from the same perpetrator that we were experiencing them from last academic school year,” Chief Sutter told parents at a town-hall style meeting at the John Witherspoon Middle School.
He said “investigative findings” support that view.
The manner of the call has changed from the spring until now, officials said. Earlier, the messages were pre-recorded, although that did not mean one or more perpetrators were listening to them, the chief said. More recently, the calls have been “more interactive” and synthesized through a computer.
“As the person receiving the call is speaking, it’s a text to voice response from the perpetrator,” Chief Sutter said.
Princeton is far from alone in dealing with the problem. Other communities around the country have faced an onslaught of swatting threats that Chief Sutter again referred to as “terrorism.” He said law enforcement from different levels are working to crack the cases, in an effort that the FBI is coordinating.
Authorities believe that the calls are coming from electronic gamers, where the so-called “swatting” phenomena began. The “swatting” concept started out with gamers pranking a fellow gamer by calling in a fake emergency to law enforcement to that person’s house and then watching the SWAT team response via the video camera in that person’s computer, Chief Sutter said.
From there, it’s grown to target places from as far as Alaska to New York.
“What we’ve learned through our investigations with the federal and state agencies that are involved around the country, we think it’s still emanating from that community,” Chief Sutter said. “It’s an epidemic, in this gaming community. They’re being perpetrated by various individuals, possibly from around the world.”
Mr. Cochrane said the people making the calls “are scoring points” for the calls they make and the subsequent evacuations. “It’s a game to them,” he said.
“It’s a sad reality, and we are doing our very best to respond to it. But it’s not a game to us,” Mr. Cochrane said.
The calls are made through Internet equipment on computers.
In his remarks, Chief Sutter explained why law enforcement has responded differently based on their assessments of the threat. He said that in some cases, there are details in the calls that would make evacuating the school “not the prudent action.”
For instance, a threat made against Princeton High School was that there was a bomb in the building and the caller sitting in car in the parking lot, Mr. Cochrane said. Authorities needed to clear the parking lot first before students could be evacuated, he continued.
“What you need to trust us on is that we have detailed response plans to these,” Chief Sutter said. “We would never, ever jeopardize anyone’s safety, and we always err on the side of caution.”
In terms of next steps, Mr. Cochrane said the district had consulted with a high-tech telephone security company, based in Texas, that has worked with the National Security Agency and other large global corporations.
He said he could not elaborate on the “phone enhancements” the district would put in place. But he said the technology would be able to get information about the sources of the calls and redirect the calls to another phone bank or school staff trained in threat assessment.
“One of the things that we have heard from the FBI and others is that sometimes the callers are fueled by the sense of panic they may hear on the other side of the phone,” Mr. Cochrane said.
He said that a few weeks ago, secretaries in the district were trained on how they should respond when a threat comes in.