Bomb threat hoax shuts down US, UK schools — with zero skill required

Digital "swatting" has evolved into bomb and beheading threats made against schoolchildren.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer
(Image: Jeff Gynane/file photo)

Dozens of schools across the US and UK have fallen prey to a bomb scare hoax which caused evacuations and students to be sent home.

On Monday, reports emerged of "swatting" taking place against schools. According to the Associated Press, schools across the US were forced to evacuate and close for the day after receiving "robotic" threats.

It is estimated that schools across 21 US states received phone calls claiming there were bombs on site, the states being Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

In some cases, as many as 10 schools in a single state were threatened by the caller between 2pm to 2:30pm ET.

Some schools, however, did chose to ignore the automated calls, and instead placed buildings on lockdown and waited until law enforcement conducted sweeps of the grounds for explosives or other suspicious items.

No devices have been found in any school affected by the threats.

Schools across the UK were targeted at roughly the same time. The Independent reports at least 21 schools across counties including Kent, Essex, Peterborough and Cambridge also received bomb scares at approximately 10am GMT.

The anonymous caller said: "Bomb on site, shrapnel will take children's heads off."

School heads reported that "repeated" calls were made by a male voice, potentially in an American accent.

Children were pulled out of class with many sent home as police investigated each school site, but again, nothing was found. Unfortunately for students, the calls came at the same time as secondary school General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams.

Canterbury Academy Headteacher Phil Karnavas told local Kent media: "It's almost certainly a hoax but with what's happening across Europe I'm not prepared to take that gamble."

"Swatting" is associated mainly with online gamers looking to take down rival players or disrupt a game. It is common practice for gamers to anonymously tip off the police -- often with proxies to disguise their identity -- in order to prompt law enforcement to throw an armed SWAT team at a residence.

Police forces will generally err on the side of caution when they receive emergency calls containing threats, whether they are bomb-related or a caller claiming they are going to hurt their family. In turn, this makes such hoaxes almost always successful but also means that if you are caught, it is a felony offence to waste police time and make such claims.

However, it is not difficult to cover your tracks as a hoaxer. Often, all it requires is a disguised IP address and the download of a web app which allows you to spoof a mobile number, and with no real technical skills required, this type of dangerous prank can be performed by almost anyone.

Electronic voices are used to conceal the caller's true identity, and the latest threats made against schools were conducted through automated, robotic calls. Many of the threats were made from an "electronically disguised voice," according to NBC News, and the sheer amount of calls made at the same time is unusually high.

The call timing and the number of targets may suggest the hoaxes were conducted by either a group or individual with some serious planning and collaboration, but little is known concerning who -- and why schools were the focus.

This is not the first incident of swatting taking place against schools. In January this year, over two dozen schools in New Jersey and other states were forced to close after receiving threats by phone related to bombs and mass shootings.

In 2015, 22-year-old Matthew Tollis was given a one-year sentence for faking emergency calls to Boston University, two high schools in New Jersey and a high school in Texas.

When you consider the fear that such hoaxes can create, the consequences do seem rather light -- especially in today's climate and that it is likely to only be a matter of time before someone gets hurt.

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