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Radio Hackers Interfering With Police Calls

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Emboldened by new technology, hackers are invading police emergency networks with increasing frequency, confusing officers across Southern California with hundreds of rogue broadcasts last year that wasted police time and in extreme cases delayed responses to emergencies.

Such security breaches, which a few years ago occurred only a handful of times a year, are becoming a common problem that affects one local agency or another almost daily.

Police channels were once “sacred ground. . . . But with new technology, that’s not the case,” said Santa Ana Police Sgt. Raul Luna. “We’re much more vulnerable.”

Although it might seem like the harmless work of a few pranksters, police say the security breaches have serious consequences. Consider:

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* In one of the most serious cases in recent months, a hacker interfered with a California Highway Patrol pursuit of a tagger in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. The rogue broadcast delayed officers’ calls for backup. By the time police units arrived, the tagger had slipped away.

“It definitely interrupted the pursuit,” said CHP Det. David Flores, adding that future transmissions could have more serious consequences. “An officer could be out there with something overwhelming happening, and he cannot get on the air. It could cost somebody their life.”

An investigation into the incident led CHP investigators to arrest 63-year-old Bell businessman Jack Gerritsen. He is also the subject of an investigation by Orange County sheriff’s officials into more than 100 breaches of their radio channels over the last year.

* A burping hacker--dubbed “the phantom"--regularly breaks into the Huntington Beach band, sometimes masquerading as an officer under attack. The hoax broadcasts have thrown staff into a panic and forced them to make hurried checks on patrol units to ensure none are in danger.

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* Last summer, a hacker posing as a Brea police officer warned of shots fired near City Hall, prompting police to evacuate portions of the civic center and seal off surrounding streets as they combed the area for a possible gunman.

* Santa Ana officials alerted officers last month to a singer belting out gangsta rap lyrics over the city’s police channel. The transmission prevented officers from calling in their positions for more than a minute until the song had finished.

Officials blame the increase in hackers on the growing availability of cheap high-tech radios. Swap meets and private sellers offer gadgets for as little as $300 that can be modified to transmit on police channels.

“I think it’s becoming more prevalent because you’re getting more people out there who like to mess around with radios,” Flores said. “And the technology has become more sophisticated.”

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Other hackers are opportunists who manage to get their hands on a police officer’s hand-held radio.

“An officer will leave their radio lying inside their car, and someone will snap it up,” said Long Beach Police Sgt. Steve Filippini. “Usually they can use it for a few days and the battery will go dead.”

Police agencies, officials said, are virtually helpless when their radio channels are invaded because some current networks lack the security features of newer ones. Overriding the messages, they said, is impossible without cutting off some officers’ access to the frequency. Officers who try to talk over the hackers only broadcast garbled messages.

Catching hackers is notoriously difficult. Law enforcement officials must be prepared to track the transmission when it begins if they hope to pinpoint the source. Even when caught, suspects face misdemeanor charges, bringing a fine and a maximum jail term of a year.

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Orange County agencies are spending millions of dollars on a new radio system that will--among other features--encrypt police frequencies and better protect channels from invasion. Irvine and Tustin police are scheduled to start using the system this month, with the rest of the county joining by year’s end.

The new technology will allow agencies to determine whether prank broadcasts were made by police radios or outsiders. But law enforcement officials said they believe the system will provide a respite rather than a cure.

“Technology will eventually come on line so that hackers will be able to figure out how to interfere again,” said Orange County Sheriff’s Capt. Joe Davis.

Los Angeles County has no immediate plans to install such safeguards.

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Pranks Pose Potential for Substantial Harm

So far, local officers said they have been lucky; no one has been hurt because of prank interference. But interruptions make it difficult for police officers to communicate with each other or with headquarters. Officials said it’s only a matter of time until a security breach occurs at the wrong moment, putting officers or the public in harm’s way.

There have been close calls.

The Chinatown incident occurred last November as CHP officers were staking out an area around the Pasadena Freeway that has been repeatedly hit by taggers.

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About 7:30 p.m., officers noticed a tagger spraying the wall and began pursuing him by car and foot. Just as officers were about to broadcast instructions to set up a perimeter around the area, the hacker breached their frequency and began a 20-second rant against the LAPD Rampart Division.

“It was so frustrating that this guy was interfering,” said the CHP’s Flores. “We were trying to catch this guy.”

By the time the radio became free again, it was too late, Flores said. Officers arrived at their perimeter positions, but the suspect had slipped through.

In Northern California, CHP dispatchers in December heard a plea for help from someone claiming to be a police officer. The voice said a fellow officer was injured and near death at a location near Fresno.

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Officials dispatched officers from various agencies and sent a helicopter and airplane to scour the area, but concluded after hours of hunting that the call was a hoax.

The same hacker is believed to be responsible for fake calls of officers injured and shots fired in Berkeley, Richmond, Oakland and Vallejo, said Richmond Police Sgt. Mike Walter.

Police departments from Oregon to Florida report similar problems.

“My impression is that it’s going on all over the country,” said Alan Burton, a Benicia, Calif.-based consultant on 911 systems. “The thing has been a continuing problem.”

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Burton said the digitalization of radio systems could help, but he doubts it will completely keep hackers off the airwaves.

“Even then, I’m not sure we ever will,” he said. “There are guys who stay up all night trying to hack into whatever they can, police radios, the Pentagon.”

Police in Huntington Beach have for five years listened to “the phantom,” who interferes with the agency’s radio band two or three times a month, said Lt. Chuck Thomas.

“He’ll burp, he’ll make noises like he’s going to the bathroom,” Thomas said. “It’s disruptive. We’ve had him come on the radio and say, ‘Shots fired.’ That perks everyone up.”

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Mimicking Police Distress Calls

The phantom has even pretended to be a police officer in distress, sending other officers into a panicked hunt for their colleague in trouble, Thomas said.

“This happens fairly regularly to us,” he said. “We’ve instructed people to completely ignore him. He wants us to react. Maybe he gets a kick out of us reacting.”

Often, hackers’ primary motive appears to be crude.

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Police officers in Santa Ana last month were forced to listen to a rap song from another hacker whose profanity-filled lyrics assailed officers, said Sgt. Luna. Under such verbal assaults, some officers try to use their radios to order hackers to stop broadcasting, but the tactic rarely works.

Luna heard one 60-second rant in which the hacker sang profanity-laden rap songs attacking Santa Ana officers.

“I was stunned,” he said. “He was so forthright and brazen with his comments. . . . It’s almost like he’s got a personal vendetta.”

In the case of the Bell businessman arrested last year on suspicion of hacking, personal experience played a key role. Gerritsen said in an interview that he played the recording on thousands of occasions over numerous radio bands, some of which were probably used by police. He said he was once the victim of police brutality, and argued that broadcasting his message condemning the LAPD’s Rampart Division should be protected by free speech rights.

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He said his intention was to protest police misconduct, not to interfere with police work.

Police accuse him of going on a rampage, hitting police in Beverly Hills, Long Beach, Maywood, Garden Grove and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department with a barrage of transmissions. The recording attacked police officers, particularly the Rampart Division, where some gang officers are being investigated for alleged corruption.

For more than a month, prerecorded messages came over the airwaves. Sometimes, the messages were repeated again and again. Orange County sheriff’s officials logged 133 broadcasts of the message in just over a month before they stopped counting.

Alarmed by the extent of the problem, CHP detectives teamed up with investigators from the Federal Communications Commission to trace the transmissions’ source. They began a painstaking probe, using high-tech equipment. Investigators eventually made their way to a currency exchange shop in Bell.

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The CHP’s Flores said that on Dec. 28, he and other investigators watched as Gerritsen left the business, walked to the parking lot and activated a pocket-sized radio. They listened, Flores said, as he made an identical broadcast.

He was booked on suspicion of disrupting public safety communications. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is reviewing the case. Orange County sheriff’s investigators said he also could face prosecution in Orange County.


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