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Pittsburgh FBI says it has resources to catch swatters who disguise their identities

 Mike Nordwall, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Pittsburgh office, speaks about the increasing threat of swatting incidents.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Mike Nordwall, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Pittsburgh office, speaks about the increasing threat of swatting incidents.

People who call in fake crimes in order to elicit a police response are becoming increasingly sophisticated about disguising their identities with online technology, according to FBI officials in Pittsburgh. But the FBI has experts who can track them down, according to Mike Nordwall, the FBI special agent in charge at the Pittsburgh office.

We have analysts that work around the clock every day to do just that,” he said. “To grab the pieces of intelligence and evidence that comes from a lot of these calls across the nation, look for commonalities and really drive down using our tools, identify the location and the identity of these individuals.”

The issue of swatting has taken on heightened importance in Pittsburgh after hoax phone calls to Oakland Catholic and Central Catholic High Schools last week elicited the response of a massive law enforcement response andtraumatized students and parents alike. Some parents wondered during the event how the schools might be able to better prepare for a real event in the future. Nordwall and the FBI declined to comment on this specific case.

There can be other consequences of hoax phone calls, such as decreased response time for other emergencies, Nordwall said. “Until we know it's a hoax, we have to treat it as it's real,” he said. “So, that's the difficult part about this. That's why it's so important to hold those people accountable and make examples out of them.”

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Even as these hoax calls continue to become more common, Nordwall said that he thinks this is still the best approach. “It would be difficult to have a measured response when you have a call about an active shooter in a school, especially in the reality of the world that we're in right now,” he said. “And I think that that's what the community expects. And I think that's the one bit of comfort we should be able to get out of this.

The potential jail time for crimes like this can be five years or more, depending on the kind of threat that was made, Nordwall said. For example, the threat to use a bomb would prompt a stiffer sentence. He also said the fines to repay law enforcement for the total cost of their response are steep.

But the motives are often unclear or hard to understand, Nordwall said. But increasingly the perpetrators of swatting crimes are not local.

“Traditionally when we first thought of swatting, oftentimes it was local. It was somebody wanting to prank somebody up the road or get revenge on an individual or residents,” he said. “And [now] they're all over. They don't necessarily have to be local. And that's where they use technology to their advantage.”

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.