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On Saturday, French police received a call from a certain “Father Mathis” claiming ten armed men had entered Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles church in central Paris and taken about twenty people hostage. Not only are the pranksters good impersonators, they also reportedly hacked the church’s phone number to make it look as if the call was coming from inside the church itself.
According to journalists at the French news magazine L’Obs, police had a long conversation with the caller, trying to determine if it was a hoax or not, before finally launching the emergency response. But when they did, it was full steam ahead. Dozens of police as well as members of an elite counter-terrorism unit descended on the busy Chatelet and Les Halles shopping area in Paris’s first district, while a helicopter buzzed overhead. The government even released an alert on SAIP, a special smartphone app that it developed to warn citizens in case of terrorist attacks. Shoppers fled and stores closed.
Only after investigating the scene did they realize that the call was a hoax.
For the two teenagers, age 16 and 17, who claim to be behind the call, the response surpassed their wildest dreams. They didn’t shy from bragging about the success online under the user names “Tylers Swatting” and “Zakhaev Yamaha”.
“I did the worst SWATT, I got them to send out helicopters, the government and fifty police cars!” one wrote using the Facebook account “Tylers Swatting.”
Swatting is the practice of calling in a fake emergency to elicit an emergency response. The name “swatting” comes from the ultimate response: bringing out a SWAT team. In the past 15 years, this illegal practice has become popular amongst some American gamers, who often try to catch the law enforcement response on webcam. The teens who claim to have provoked the Paris incident bragged on Facebook that they were watching the emergency response unfold on Skype.
The two teens also corresponded online with several French journalists on Saturday, telling them they “did it to go viral”.
They also claimed they would continue outsmarting the authorities.
“We aren’t traceable”, they wrote. “We use encrypted servers. We are at least two hours away from Paris and we aren’t afraid of the police.”
On Sunday, the Facebook accounts used by the teens to communicate— “Tylers Swatting” and “Taylers WB”— were both closed.
French police have opened up an investigation into what they are calling the “reporting of an imaginary crime”. The punishment is up to two years in prison and a fine of €30,000. In July of this year, a French court handed down the maximum sentence to an adolescent convicted of swatting.
In the United States, swatting is also considered a federal crime. Last year, a man in Connecticut was sentenced to a year in prison, three years of supervised release and 300 hours of community service for involvement in multiple swatting incidents.
A police source told the French news agency AFP that the investigation to find the two hoaxers who orchestrated the call on Saturday could take time. However, the source restated the police’s commitment to finding the perpetrators. Tolerance for this kind of prank is low, considering a total of 238 people in France have been killed and hundreds wounded since January 2015 in a string of attacks attributed to, or fomented by, the Islamic State jihadist group.
The French capital remains on high alert. Earlier this month, an abandoned car loaded with gas canisters and diesel was found near Notre Dame cathedral, a tourist hotspot in central Paris. French authorities have since charged several people over the failed attack.