‘Swatting’ calls waste public funds, resources

By Elysse James

Orange County Sheriff’s Lt. Quyen Vuong was eating soup when he got the call: A man claimed to have planted several bombs in a quiet Mission Viejo neighborhood.

Vuong, the chief of Mission Viejo Police Services, jumped into action.

The caller claimed to have placed bombs in mailboxes in the 27000 block of Pebble Beach and said the explosives would detonate if he saw any police there. The man demanded money but didn’t give instructions on how to deliver the funds, and said he wanted to commit suicide, Vuong said.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department set up a command post at the entry to the Cypress Point Community in Mission Viejo following a bomb threat.
Photo provided by Lt. Quyen Vuong

“The way the call came down, we would say 80 percent that it was a hoax,” he said. “However, that 20 percent makes us pull in the full resources of the Sheriff’s Department.”

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department set up a command post at the entry to the Cypress Point Community in Mission Viejo.

“We recognized right away that it was a voice-over-internet phone, but it was an actual caller,” Vuong said, as opposed to a computer program reading text typed by the caller. “This was actually someone on the phone and the number that was used to call us had been linked to 20 other swatting calls throughout the nation.”

Police lights flash on vehicles responding to a bomb threat in a Mission Viejo neighborhood.
Photo provided by Lt. Quyen Vuong

Swatting is the practice of calling in a false emergency in an effort to send law enforcement to an address and tie up public safety resources. It’s commonly seen in the gaming community when rivalries escalate among first-person shooter players. The name is derived from the SWAT team’s involvement in responding to these calls.

“Sometimes it’s a challenge, sometimes it’s a joke,” Vuong said. “Other times, they want to actually cause harm.”

In this case, the call came in at 9:47 p.m. Tuesday, May 29, just a couple weeks after one person was killed and three others were injured when a bomb was detonated at an Aliso Viejo day spa.

“We’re never going to jeopardize community safety because we’re trying to save overtime or our resources, so it was a no-brainer,” Vuong said.

The deputies were able to clear the neighborhood within a couple hours using six K9s trained to find explosive devices and one K9 trained for apprehension. They checked the mailboxes, cars, and public areas and put a law enforcement presence on each street in the small gated community.

A man called law enforcement claiming to have placed bombs in mailboxes in the 27000 block of Pebble Beach in Mission Viejo. Deputies were able to clear the neighborhood within a couple hours.
Photo provided by Lt. Quyen Vuong

In addition to the seven K9s, 23 deputies, nine firefighters, and members of the Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center also were at the scene. Sheriff’s Deputies in neighboring cities pitched in and helped cover other calls in the area.

“That’s going to cost a fair bit of money to have that many people go out there,” Vuong said, adding that they were in the neighborhood for about four hours. By his estimate, this swatting call cost about $7,000 to $10,000, not counting the helicopter that circled the area looking for suspicious activity or unexpected heat sources.

Three investigators are working on the case, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department plans to request restitution for the resources used and lives endangered during the swatting call.

“We’re very fortunate in Mission Viejo that we do have adequate staffing and that, coupled with the resources by our department and OCFA, we did have enough resources that if there was an actual incident, we can effectively do our job and keep our community safe,” Vuong said.