2016-02-11 / Front Page

School Threats Tied to Russia

By Olga Enger

A rash of hoax threats directed at local schools have been traced to Russia, according to Rhode Island State Police. The calls, which were generated by robo-calling systems, are under investigation by federal, state and local law enforcement.

Calls have come in almost daily since the first threat was received by Rogers High School Principal Jeffrey Goss on Sunday, Jan. 31. Nothing was found, but around 30 percent of students stayed home from school the following Monday.

“Any bomb threat, we take seriously. We aren’t going to minimize it,” said Rhode Island State Police Captain Matthew Moynihan. “We traced the calls back to Russia. It wasn’t anything we anticipated.” Since the calls originated from out of the country, the FBI is leading the investigation, said Moynihan, who is part of the State Police computer crimes unit.

Middletown, Tiverton and Warwick school departments have also received hoax threats, as well as the Newport Police Department on Wednesday, Feb. 3.

“The Newport Police Department received a call that was not credible,” said Newport Sgt. Corey Huck. “We did an exterior sweep of the station.”

On Tuesday, Feb. 9, the Newport School Department received a threat delivered through email, which, like the calls, was unfounded.

Outside of the location, little is known about the group targeting the schools.

“The investigation led back to a location in Russia. But why, or who is sending them, is unknown. It’s unclear why Newport received them,” said Moynihan.

Russia has recently developed into a haven for hackers and cyber-criminals, who are often protected by its government. Russians are linked to some of the most powerful and fastest spreading computer viruses in history, such as Bagel, MyDoom and NetSky. Poor economic conditions in Russia may have contributed to the rise of cyber-crime groups. According to a report released by CERT-LEXSI, only a small percent of technology professionals find jobs in Russia, leaving many highly-skilled professionals unemployed. Additionally, the 2003 disbanding of the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information (FAPSI) has been attributed to the growth of cyber-crime organizations in Russia.

Although no group has claimed responsibility for the local threats, a pro-Vladimir Putin group in Russia recently said on Twitter they were behind similar hoaxes in Britain, France and Australia. Since claiming responsibility, the group’s Twitter handles @Ev4cuati0nSquad and @SwatTheW0rld have been suspended. For a fee, anyone may request a location or person to receive a call, according to posts by the group.

Evacuation Squad posted their motive: “Hello, and we are EvacuationSquad. We do what we do for a few reasons: We hate the American government. We hate authority. We love to cause mayhem.”

Evacuation Squad included a fee structure, payable only by Bitcoins, for requests that they target a location or individual with a robo-call. The payments range between $5 for a school and $50 for a major sporting event.

The robo-calling technology is identical to those used by telemarketers. The Russian group used an anonymous proxy, which is a tool that attempts to make the activity untraceable, according to officials.

The automated hoax calls are sometimes referred to as “swatting calls,” which is a term used by the FBI as far back as 2008. The objective is to trigger a massive police response (S.W.A.T. teams).

Domestically, law enforcement has seen an up-tick in swatting pranks within the gaming community. Gamers often target opponents, who participate in live streams on websites such as Twitch.

In November, U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., sponsored a bill called the "Interstate Swatting Hoax Act of 2015," which aims to make swatting a federal crime. Last month, she was targeted by an automated call that claimed there was an active shooter in her home.

“We are going to establish a protocol for this,” said Newport Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano. “We need to develop a cohesive way of handling this type of thing.” She said such hoaxes achieve exactly what the perpetrators want. “They want to take the kids out of school. It’s incredibly disruptive and it can’t go on. And we have been making such good progress with attendance.”

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