At 9:18 p.m. on Aug. 3, the San Francisco Police Department received a call from a man reporting that his brother was being held hostage in his own home. After three hours of trying to reach the victims, SWAT teams burst into the house.
Once inside, they found a husband and wife in their mid-thirties with their two small children, spending a quiet evening at home.
"There was no merit to any kidnapping or actual hostage situation," said Sgt. Michael Andraychak, a public information officer for the San Francisco Police.
The SFPD had been the victim of "swatting": placing prank phone calls to police to lure them to mobilize SWAT teams to respond to fake hostage situations.
Swatting has spread throughout the United States and Canada in recent months.
"Once you catch a swatter or a group that is committing these crimes, they are usually responsible for multiple swatting incidents," said Kevin Kolbye, the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Dallas office, which headed the first federal swatting case in 2007. Kolbye has been piecing together what appeared to be isolated swatting cases around the country since 2004.
In the past, offenders have solicited private information about their intended victims from phone companies and slipped the victims' numbers into the caller ID of the 911 emergency system -- a method called spoofing.
But according to Kolbye, it doesn't take an experienced hacker to trigger a fake hostage situation and mobilize SWAT teams.
"It's not like it's a hard crime," he said. "It just takes somebody who has a little bit of savvy about computers and telephone systems."
Recent swatting incidents may be copycats of earlier crimes, Kolbye said, instigated by past offenders who brag about their methods on blogs.
"I think you find a lot of copycat violations," Kolbye said. "Same as you find when a highly publicized serial killer is around, you find a lot of copycatting. So when crimes receive national attention, you find people who are intrigued with this type of crime and they emulate it."
Swatting perpetrators tend to be males between in their 20s and 30s -- social misfits who mobilize SWAT teams for nothing more than "bragging rights," Kolbye said.
Swatting in Canada and the U.S.
In Florida, the Hialeah Police Department received a teletype on Aug. 2 with information that a shooter, armed with an AR-15 rifle, was holding a victim hostage in a local home. Public information officer Det. Eddy Rodriguez said that after five hours of evacuating surrounding buildings and attempting contact with victims inside the home, the SWAT team broached the house. Nobody was home.
Forty members of the Bergen County Police Department SWAT team burst into the home of cyber expert Perry Aftab in Wyckoff, N.J., on July 23, responding to a caller who reported that he had already killed four people and taken several others hostage. When SWAT members entered the home fighting tear gas from four bombs they thrown through the windows, they were greeted only by a cat.
"I'm not laughing," said Wyckoff Police Chief Benjamin Fox, who was in lead command of the SWAT team.
Fox said that swatting drains local law enforcement of their already scarce resources and poses a danger to innocent victims who may accidentally get hurt.
"You've got police officers running around with high powered weapons acting under belief of a potential threat against them," he said. "What's if there's an accident? What if somebody innocently comes out of their house because of the hoax and it's perceived by officers of scene as someone else? After the fact, we would have to sort out that whole tragic situation which now has been elevated to another level."
All three recent U.S. swatting incidents are federal offenses that are under investigation. Perpetrators could face charges of conspiracy and fraud, which carry maximum penalties of five and 20 years in prison respectively.
"Each time they call, they leave an investigative trail: a piece of evidence," Kolbye said. "It's just a matter of time for us to continue to put all the pieces together and come knocking on their door."