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BLUFFDALE — A Bluffdale couple had a national "trend" arrive on their doorstep Sunday night, in the form of several police officers.
The homeowner, who asked that he and his wife not be identified, said his wife was streaming video games using a website called Twitch when she saw her personal information pop up in a chat feature. She quickly deleted the comments and logged off, but then a Twitter message was sent to her announcing: "SWAT's coming."
"That was really scary because we had heard of this phenomenon of 'swatting' where people call police under false pretenses, so we were pretty scared," the man said. "We didn't know if this was serious or not."
Saratoga Springs Police Chief Andrew Burton said that his dispatch center received a call around 9:30 p.m. from someone on a online-based telephone service reporting that he had shot and killed his mother and was holding his father and his brother at gunpoint as hostages.
"Of course, the dispatch center has no idea whether the call is legitimate or not, but every call has to be taken as though it's legitimate, so police units were dispatched," Burton said, noting that a call of that kind required extra units.
Officers from Saratoga Springs, which provides police service for Bluffdale, and officers from Unified and Draper police were dispatched to the home near 15000 South and Peace Drive. Meantime, the homeowner said he and his wife were listening for sirens.
"It crossed my mind to call the local police and give them a heads up, but honestly, we were so panicked and I just couldn't believe that it was really happening," he said. "She was really low profile (on Twitch), it didn't even cross my mind that it could happen to us. I know this has happened to high profile streamers, but never in a million years would I have thought we would be dealing with this."
The officers started giving me orders: 'Put my hands up, walk backwards toward them,' that sort of thing. After they had put me in custody, laid me on the ground, put handcuffs on me, I explained to them that this was an Internet prank.
He said he and his wife heard an occasional siren in the distance, but nothing sounded very close to their home.
"Then we noticed what looked like people crawling around the yards nearby and I realized, 'Yes, this is really happening,'" he told the KSL News.
He said he decided he had to go outside and explain what had happened. He exited his home with his hands up.
"The officers started giving me orders: 'Put my hands up, walk backwards toward them,' that sort of thing," he said. "After they had put me in custody, laid me on the ground, put handcuffs on me, I explained to them that this was an Internet prank."
He said the officers were helpful and professional and went inside to clear the home and locate the man's wife and dog. It was a tense situation, but he said he was confident no one would be hurt when he spoke with the officers.
"The police in Utah are very highly trained," Burton said. "They're very professional. They're going to have to take these kinds of situations very seriously, but on the other hand, officers use deadly force as a last resort."
Still, he said this trend is a concerning one. That said, his department is committed to finding the person who made the prank call and seeing that they face appropriate charges.
"Swatting" may be a small prank for the caller, but it costs police departments lots of money. Here's the financial breakdown of Saratoga Springs' recent swatting incidents:
- Officer response: $1,500
Westlake High School bomb threat
- Initial response: $6,000 to $8,000
- K-9 units: $2,000
- Tracking down caller: $2,000
Saratoga Springs police dealt with something similar recently, on Aug. 19, when someone called police via Skype reporting explosives at Westlake High School and demanding $10 million to avoid detonation. Burton said they enlisted the help of the FBI and were able to trace the call to a teenager in Saratoga Springs.
He said the teen had placed similar calls in seven other states and could be facing possible charges in both state and federal courts. He warned that bogus calls like these can yield very real consequences.
"Persons contemplating this kind of activity should rethink the matter and realize that this is not just a game on TV or on the computer," the chief said. "It's a serious crime and, frankly, the technology they use to hide from us is the technology we'll use to find them, so they will be found and they will be charged."
Burton said homeowners in similar situations should call police and notify them that they have been threatened with a SWAT response, but that it is a hoax. If they choose to go outside and inform officers themselves, he recommends that they first call dispatchers and inform them that they are planning to exit their home so they can make the officers aware.
He said the homeowner Sunday did the right thing — exiting with his hands in the air. Both Burton and the homeowner warned that information on the Internet is not secure and that everyone should be aware of what is available about them online.
The Bluffdale man said he just hopes that whoever made the call about them is found and punished accordingly.
"It's a really tense, really loaded situation where if the people in the residence or if one officer had to make a judgment call in a heated situation, things could go very very badly and it could ruin people's lives," he said. "It's just not worth it."