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Celebrity 'swatting' hoaxes cause concern for law enforcement

November 28, 2012 | 10:07 am

LAPD investigates outside actor Ashton Kutcher’s Lake Hollywood residence in October after a text to 911 reported a home invasion robbery. It was a hoax. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times

Celebrities are no strangers to invasions of privacy, with paparazzi snapping endless photos and websites publishing detailed information about stars' homes, including their street addresses.

But there's a new prank in Hollywood, one that is causing major concerns for stars and law enforcement alike.

"Swatting is a very real problem for those in the public eye," said Blair Berk, a criminal lawyer who has represented stars, including Mel Gibson, Kanye West and Lindsay Lohan. "It is only a matter of time before someone dies because of this stupidity."

Justin Bieber and Simon Cowell are two of the latest high-profile victims of "swatting," a fast-growing phenomenon masterminded by anonymous mischief-makers who alert police to a bogus crime situation, prompting a tactical response — sometimes by SWAT officers — that involves a high-risk search for phantom assailants.

Several officers have already been injured responding to such calls, and officials, including Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, fear it's only a matter of time before events turn deadly.

Beck acknowledged that swatting has stretched the LAPD's emergency response capacity while endangering victims by placing them in potential confrontation with police firepower.

"It not only draws public safety resources away from real emergencies, it places people at significant risk by the dispatch of armed police officers," Beck said. "Our big fear is that [swatting] will become more prevalent."

In Bieber's case, someone inside a gated Calabasas mansion reported shots fired Oct. 10 and said the gunman was threatening residents, making clear he'd put police in his cross hairs when they showed up.

Unbeknown to sheriff's deputies, that mansion was Bieber's. Multiple squad cars were scrambled, and heavily armed deputies arrived. They swept Bieber's residence and two others on the street before discovering it was all a hoax. The pop star, on tour at the time, was nowhere near the mansion.

Chief Bill McSweeney of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department says the most sophisticated swatting maneuvers involve tricking caller ID so that a 911 call can be registered as having been placed from inside the very household being swatted.

Investigators say a 911 call reporting an armed home invasion that sent firefighters plus a dozen police officers swarming down on Miley Cyrus' unoccupied Studio City home in August may have originated from a cellphone, then bounced over several Internet providers to hide its origin. Bieber's swatting was called in through a device that allows hearing-impaired callers to send messages over the phone.

But even with the advanced software used by the LAPD, tracing spoofed calls or teletexts can be difficult.

"If these calls originate with a throwaway phone," McSweeney said, "sometimes those are hard to track."

No one has been prosecuted in any of the celebrity swatting cases, which also include incidents at the homes of Ashton Kutcher and Simon Cowell. But because of similarities in the Bieber, Cyrus and Kutcher incidents, police officials suspect the same person may have swatted the three stars.

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— Chris Lee and Richard Winton

Photo: LAPD investigates outside actor Ashton Kutcher’s Lake Hollywood residence in October after a text to 911 reported a home invasion robbery. It was a hoax. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times
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