Dozens of schools in the United States and the United Kingdom have fallen prey to a spate of bomb threat hoaxes that have caused evacuations and forced school shutdowns.
On Monday, it is estimated that schools in 21 states received phone calls claiming there were bombs on site. Alison Dirr of USA Today notes that in some cases, there were as many as ten schools in a single state threatened by an anonymous caller. Some schools chose to ignore the automated calls and instead placed their buildings on lockdown and waited until law enforcement confirmed the safety of their environments.
At roughly the same time, dozens of schools across the UK were targeted by the automated calls. The anonymous caller said, “Bomb on site, shrapnel will take children’s heads off.” The recording lasted for about 90 minutes.
No devices have been found in any school targeted by the threats. Observers said that the call timing and the number of targets were suggestive of a hoax. Still, little is known of who made the calls and why such calls were placed.
Law enforcement said the threats were being handled by local law enforcement. But, as reported by journalists at NBC News, the FBI said that it was aware of the threats, saying “We remain in touch with our law enforcement partners to provide assistance if needed.” Regrettably, such threats are common during the school year, but the number of targeted schools this time appeared to be unusually high.
According to Charlie Osborne for Zero Day, the schools were a victim of “swatting,” a practice of online gamers looking to take down rival players or disrupt a game. Evidently, it is a common practice for gamers to anonymously tip off law enforcement – often through proxies to disguise their identity – to shut down another player’s residence.
Police will err on the side of caution when they receive emergency calls, so this makes “swatting” almost always successful. If the individual who instigated the “swat” is identified, they will be charged with a felony for making erroneous claims and wasting police’s time. It is not difficult to disguise one’s identity, however. The combination of a disguised IP address and a web app allows any hoaxer to cover their tracks, thus being able to pull off dangerous pranks with virtually zero expertise.
The incident on Monday was not the first episode of swatting that took place against schools. In January, over two dozen schools in New Jersey and other states were forced to close after receiving phone calls warning of bombs and mass shootings. In 2015, Matthew Tollis was given a one-year sentence for faking emergency calls to Boston University, two high schools in New Jersey, and a high school in Texas.
“I think it’s sick,” said Tom Yates, a parent of one of the children affected by the threats in Storm Grove Middle School in Indian River County, Florida. “Somebody that gets joy and pleasure out of seeing children scared and their parents scared for them — this world needs a lot of help.”