On March 27, a Rhode Island high schooler stood on a toilet and watched as a police officer, gun drawn, searched the bathroom for an active shooter. On March 28 in Massachusetts, a school nurse locked people into her darkened office, where they cried and prayed as they waited for 20 minutes. And on March 29, a Pennsylvania high schooler sent a text to his family, “I love you all. There is an active shooter.”
While these incidents occurred across the country, they each had something in common: the danger was a hoax. A caller had contacted the school community and lied, claiming there was an active shooter.
In the last several weeks, dozens of these calls have flooded schools across the country, including 50 school districts in New York state on April 4, 28 communities in Massachusetts on March 28, at least 12 in Wyoming on April 3, nine Missouri schools on March 27, and at least 30 in Iowa on March 21. Over the last two years, such cons—which are sometimes called “swatting” in a reference to the “SWAT teams” of heavily armed police that respond to active shooter incidents—have terrorized hundreds of American schools, often in groups of schools on the same day in a particular state.
However, the last few weeks have seen a particularly heavy volume of these calls. The trouble is that current phone technology makes it easy for almost anyone to obtain a phone number anonymously. That makes it extremely difficult for police to track down the source of the calls and hold the callers accountable.
How many hoax calls have there been to schools?
The FBI has not released an estimate of how many schools have received phone calls reporting fake shootings. However, local news organizations have reported incidents at schools across the country over the last two years.
Amanda Klinger of the Educator’s School Safety Network, a nonprofit that focuses on school safety, has recorded 384 false shooting reports to schools from the beginning of this school year through the end of March, up from 69 false reports in the 2018-2019 school year (the last year they have complete data). The National Association of School Resource Officers documented hoax calls in 42 states since September as of April 6. However, some schools may have been left off both lists if they weren’t reported in local news.
Why are there more fake calls now?
The FBI said in a statement to TIME on Tuesday that it is “actively investigating these dangerous and criminal threats,” although it has “no information to indicate a specific and credible threat at this time.” In November, it said that the calls may be coming from outside the U.S., the AP reported.
It’s hard to say for sure why there are so many calls, especially because technology can make it nearly impossible to identify perpetrators or hold them accountable. What’s worse, the callers may not even be in the U.S.
The big issue, says Klinger, is that school shootings are a very real threat in the United States, which bad actors can prey upon. “It makes sense. We’re scared of school shootings, because they happen,” she says. “And so it is a thing that people can use against us.”
Technology has also made it easier for people to conceal their identities, says Fred Posner, a communications consultant for LOD Communications, a technical consulting company. In the last few years, he says, VPNs (virtual private networks) became cheaper and more common, which makes it easy to conceal your identity. Layered on top of that, he says, phone carriers can now provide phone numbers to anyone, anywhere if they have an internet connection. Without inputting so much as a credit card, ID or even real name, he says, people can make digital phone calls from anywhere—even another country, he says.
An NPR investigation found that the carrier TextNow was used to make at least some of the fake calls to schools this fall. The calls appear to have originated from Ethiopia, the NPR report found.
For law enforcement, tracking phone calls through such companies is “almost impossible,” Posner says.
Why swatting is so dangerous
Swatting can be terrifying for the children, teachers and parents, who rightfully fear for their lives.
The threat may also place everyone involved in physical danger. If they anticipate that there’s an active shooter at a school, emergency responders may speed to the scene—and, guns at their sides, may rush into a school expecting to see an active shooter. On Monday, for instance, Harvard University campus police allegedly pointed assault rifles at four students, who are Black, after a hoax 911 call about an armed person in their suite, the Harvard Crimson reported.
As hoax calls rise, it’s critically important that schools and law enforcement remain ready for a real attack, says Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.
“We still have to respond as if they’re actually happening,” says Canady. “We can’t allow ourselves to go there to think oh, this is another one of those fake calls. That’s the time when it won’t be.”
What can be done to stop fake school threats?
In many public comments about swatting, lawmakers and law enforcement emphasized the importance of bringing perpetrators to justice. For instance, after a spate of calls in New York, Senator Chuck Schumer proposed a plan for a new FBI team to chase down hoax callers. “We need more agents to track down these evil criminals who hide in the darkest corners of the internet,” Schumer said on April 5.
Given how hard it is to trace perpetrators—and to stop them from wanting to make calls—Posner argues that a better strategy may be to instead focus on the carriers, like TextNow, to stop enabling people to use their networks with so little verification.
“There’s absolutely no deterrent for them to provide the service to people conducting illegal activities,” says Posner. “Even the feds, there’s not a ton that they can do—unless we get an FTC or Congress that’s willing to put some bite into putting carriers somewhat responsible for allowing this type of traffic to cross their networks.”