According to an forensic Internet crime expert, parents should Google search their child’s name regularly in order to short-circuit "swatting" attacks such as the case of the 12-year-old Southern California boy who admitted to making a fake emergency call that sent police to Ashton Kutcher’s Hollywood home last year.
“Swatting,” is a new form of prank in which the caller disguises his or her phone caller ID and calls 911 to report a serious crime. In the Kutcher case, the boy called 911 and said there were individuals inside the actor’s home with guns and explosives, and that several people had been shot, a Los Angeles Police Department statement said. In the past, the same boy has called 911 to get out of school, and targeted Justin Bieber’s Calabasas, Calif., home and a bank, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s spokeswoman said.
Dozens of emergency personnel rushed to Mr. Kutcher’s home on Oct. 3, 2012, only to find workers inside and no emergency, police said. Kutcher, who was on the set of his TV sitcom “Two and a Half Men,” also rushed to his home.
Kids began “swatting” pranks – to make a call so serious that a S.W.A.T. team must be called in – as a modern-day extension of the old school prank calls asking, “Is your refrigerator running” or bomb scare calls, says Michael Loftin, senior Internet forensic analyst for the Norfolk Police Department in Virginia,
“Unfortunately, swatting calls are going to get somebody innocent killed,” Loftin says. “When you make a call with a claim serious enough to get a S.W.A.T. team called in, think about the consequences of that for a moment. Imagine being in your bed at night and a flash bomb coming through your window. You get up with maybe a flashlight or something in hand and the team comes in and they’re thinking you’re the threat because of the call. Maybe there are little kids in that house.”
However, parents can do something about this right now, he says.
“It’s as simple as Googling your child’s name to see where he or she has accounts that may be beyond your current knowledge such as YouTube, multiple social media accounts, and especially Google Voice,” Loftin advised me in a phone interview this morning. Google Voice is a publicly available free feature that allows you to set up multiple accounts and make calls that appear to come from different area codes than the one you live in.
“Parents need to go back and sit down with their kids and explain the consequences, but they also have to do some research of their own and know what accounts their children have,” Loftin said. “If they don’t understand how to do this kind or research then call me and I’ll walk them through it.”
I explained to the good detective that the Internet’s a big place and his phone would be ringing, but he wasn’t daunted by that. Although he was careful with his information, “People can contact you and you can put them through to me.” Oh good, now I’m Batmom.
Loftin has been a great resource to me personally as I recently coped with members of a hate group that was targeting me online in response to a blog I wrote for Modern Parenthood. Today, as Loftin headed to the office to file his retirement papers he took one more call to help us all understand how kids are inspired to commit these potentially deadly felonies and what we can do as parents to protect our kids and potential victims.
“I blame the show Crank Yankers for really giving rise to this entire resurgence of prank calling,” Loftin says. “Kids listen to that on the radio, and then other DJs started doing prank calls on the air. Kids think that since the DJ can get away with it on the air that it’s not a crime.”
Because parents of pre-teens and teens may feel the tug of social bonds shearing off on a daily basis, we can fall into the parent trap of trying to be our child’s buddy and not their parent.
“It’s good to be a friend to your child, but it’s also important to establish who’s in charge and to continue to keep those lines of communication open with them,” Loftin said. “Just taking away computer time won’t cut it anymore with smart phones, computer access at schools, libraries, and at friends’ homes.” Also, demanding a kid give you his password doesn’t do much when, as Loftin pointed out, “A kid like the one in the Kutcher case probably has multiple accounts and passwords so it’s nothing to throw one to you. He may have a dummy account where he posts perfectly acceptable comments. Google your child’s name and be amazed at the accounts they have you don’t know about.”
In many cases, those accounts may be perfectly innocent and clean, but the detective told me that in those cases a parent still needs to know where an underage child is online in order to protect the child’s information and the family.
Loftin told me, “I know this is not just parenthood 101 we’re talking about anymore. It’s a modern world and this is modern parenthood for sure.”