A costly type of hoax known as swatting is an "alarming new crime trend" on Long Island, from 31 cases last year to 22 already this year, Sen. Charles Schumer said Monday in outlining a proposal to make this scam a federal crime.
Outside a Garden City office building that was the scene of a swatting incident last week, Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he will introduce a bill that would force pranksters to pay restitution to police and to the property owner if there's damage. Scammers would face a maximum prison term of 8 years, he said.
The problem is a national one, with pranksters reporting fake emergencies to draw out SWAT teams, firefighters and other front-line responders. Scammers often use swatting to settle a personal vendetta, terrifying their targets with a show of armed force outside their homes. Others want to see a big commotion from one call, and some have swatted celebrities.
"We need to make sure that every time a 911 dispatcher answers a call that it is a real emergency," Schumer said in a news release, "and we need to swat down this disturbing trend before it is too late and someone is seriously hurt."
His proposal would define swatting and he said he also supports the Anti-Spoofing Act, which would make it illegal for hoaxers to disguise their caller ID numbers through Skype and to use other methods to avoid detection.
Currently, someone accused of swatting could be charged with making a false claim under state law, which carries a maximum of 5 years in prison, the senator's office said.
Schumer took his campaign upstate to Rochester last week, but downstate, he's been surprised at the Island's numbers, describing it as an "alarming new crime trend."
Nassau has already encountered nine swatting cases this year, compared with 10 for all of last year, Schumer said. Suffolk has had 13 this year and 21 last year, he said.
Swatting is "no joke," Schumer said, because it puts lives in danger, disrupts communities with street closures and costs police and businesses money.
In what police are investigating as a swatting case, a 911 caller reported a hostage situation in the Garden City office building last Tuesday, forcing workers to rush out and police from Garden City and Nassau County to rush in for a room-by-room check that lasted more than two hours.
There have been several other cases on Long Island.
Just as a Manhasset family started to watch the Super Bowl in February 2014, they were shocked to find a SWAT team surrounding their home, Schumer said. The swatting prank was likely the deed of a "cyber bully" targeting the teenager in the family over a video game, Schumer said.
And on April 23, 2014, more than 70 emergency responders swarmed a Long Beach home, girded for a multiple shooting and barricade crisis, except the call turned out to be a revenge hoax against a video game fan, authorities said. The massive response cost $100,000, Long Beach police said at the time.