MIAMI (CBSMiami) – A dangerous gaming trend has made its way to South Florida and authorities say it’s putting lives at risk.READ MORE: Miami Beach Climate Change Plan Would See Iconic Palm Trees Swapped Out For Canopy Trees
The popular prank, called “SWATTING,” involves making a hoax call to 9-1-1 to draw a response from highly-trained and heavily-armed law enforcement, usually a SWAT team.
“It’s incredibly dangerous, it’s not an online game, we have real guns with real bullets and there’s potential for tragedy,” said Littleton, Colorado’s Police Chief Doug Stephens after his department was called out to a fake active shooter threat at an office building.
The hoax has happened across the country, including several cases in South Florida.
Last August, SWAT teams were called out to a Miami Springs home when a report came in from someone claiming to have taken hostages.
“The call went out as there was a bomb that was set to go off 20 minutes,” said Officer Janice Simon with the Miami Springs Police Department. “There were hostages and one had been shot.”
SWAT teams responded to an empty house. They had been pranked by someone who, according to detectives, had stolen information from the homeowners’ son while he was playing ‘Minecraft’ online. The hacker had also posted the homeowners personal information on the internet, which resulted in identity theft.
On Miami Beach in February, special response teams, the bomb squad, hostage negotiators, hazardous materials crews and fire rescue were called out to a home in Sunset Island after a 9-1-1 call came in with a man claiming to have killed his brother and neighbor. The caller told the dispatcher he had a bomb and threatened to detonate it if officers tried to stop him.
“I have a bomb strapped to my chest. If any (expletive) police officer tries to (expletive) run in here, I’m going to (expletive) blow them up,” said the prank caller in a 9-1-1 recording obtained by CBS4 News.
SWAT teams put the neighborhood on lock down, surrounded the home and had guns aimed at the man they believed made the threats– but turned out it was all a hoax.
“Heaven forbid if there’s an innocent homeowner that has no idea what’s going on and they come out and they’re confused and they have guns pointing at them,” said Officer Simon. “This situation can turn deadly fast.”READ MORE: Publix To Start Offering COVID-19 Vaccinations In Miami-Dade, Broward
Officers said the prank also ties up emergency resources and costs taxpayers thousands of dollars.
To pull off the prank, detectives said gamers steal each other’s information via video games.
“These online game boxes they can all access the Internet, some of them have cameras,” said Officer Simon. “All this can be used against you.”
According to Rod Soto with Hack Miami, pulling off the prank is relatively easy. Hackers pull your personal information from your gaming profile, or use your IP address to figure out your location.
“If you are a gamer, usually gamers have profiles. This profile usually has a lot of information,” said Soto. “Same thing with your picture, same thing with your phone number, same thing with your email address.”
The hackers use what’s called “spoofing” technology to clone the victim’s phone number, making it look like the 9-1-1 call is coming directly from the victim. Tech-savvy hackers can also bounce the call around through different countries to make the call virtually untraceable.
“They are using technology that is available to impersonate your phone number,” said Soto. “If you know what you are doing…[police] would not be able to get you.”
If the cyber criminals do get caught, they could face federal prison time since many of the calls cross state lines.
Nathan Hanshaw, 22, was convicted to 30-months in federal prison in Massachusetts for making interstate threats to use explosives and firearms.
In Boston, Matthew Weigman, 19, is serving an 11-year sentence for a SWATTING conspiracy that went on for years. Weigman started prank-hacking when he was just 15-years-old.
So far in South Florida, authorities have been unable to trace the SWATTERS.MORE NEWS: Florida Senator Marco Rubio Says 'We’ll See' To 2024 Presidential Run, Dismisses Ivanka Senate Talk As 'Gossip'
As long as your device is connected to the internet you are at risk, according to experts. The best way to protect yourself is to enter as little personal information as possible when you register for any game– and make sure to only play against people you know and trust.