Tech expert: Hoax threats to schools on the rise nationwide

TDR Technology Solutions reports threats to schools are up nearly 60% from last year.
The school day finally went smoothly in Henrico. No new reports of fake bomb threats being called in today, after four schools were targeted in the last two day
Published: Oct. 12, 2023 at 9:40 PM EDT
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HENRICO, Va. (WWBT) - Four different Henrico County high schools have had threats called into school employees this week.

Hermitage High School had the first hoax threat called in on Tuesday, followed by Douglas S. Freeman High School, Deep Run High School and Mills E. Godwin High School on Wednesday.

Henrico Police officers responded to each call and determined none credible but kept officers at each location for added security.

As of Thursday, Henrico Police continued investigating the multiple hoax threats made to Henrico area schools, according to the department’s spokesperson. In a statement released Wednesday, Henrico Police said a “preliminary investigation shows this type of hoax call is being made to other schools nationwide.”

Data from TDR Technology Solutions suggests it is part of an alarming new trend. The company tracks and blocks potential fake threats to schools and 911 call centers.

“Think of it as having a school resource officer (SRO) sitting on your phone system,” said TDR Technology Solutions CEO Don Beeler. “If you walk up to the school and you don’t produce the right credentials, you’re not going to get into the school.”

Beeler said his technology works a similar way.

“We look at the credentials of the caller, and if they look suspicious, or we know they’re bad, we don’t allow them into the school,” Beeler added.

Beeler said his company thwarts roughly 20,000 to 40,000 spam or malicious phone numbers from reaching its customers each day.

According to Beeler, most threats come from overseas terror groups.

“They refer to it as a hybrid war. That’s where you cause your enemy pain without using bullets and bombs,” said Beeler.“There are about three groups out of Africa that are dominating the school threat market right now. We believe they’re being paid by a state sponsor that isn’t fond of the U.S., so they do it just to disrupt [things] and cause us harm.”

According to Beeler, the groups will use online databases to find phone numbers for schools and 911 centers.

“They will assign multiple people to making calls, and then they will call multiple schools within one state,” said Beeler. “There are open source databases out there that list schools by state with the contact information, so it’s fairly easy. They can Google and find it.”

Beeler also said some of the groups are “very sophisticated” in their efforts by making one-on-one calls using Artificial Intelligence to change their voice, which gives their hoax threat an air of credibility.

“They’ll pretend to be a teacher,” he said. “If they call a 911 center, they’ll claim someone just came into the room and shot someone and say the shooter is now walking down the hallway. Then, 30 seconds to a minute later, they will call [911 from a different number] and say, ‘I’m a teacher in the cafeteria, and there’s a shooter here.’”

Email threats are also on the rise, said Beeler, thanks to the new computer programs like ChatGPT.

“Historically, they weren’t successful at sending emails because you can tell that it was written by someone that English wasn’t their first language, so it made their emails less successful,” said Beeler. “But now, with products like ChatGPT, their emails look pretty good.”

Beeler warns social media is also posing a different threat this year, with an increase in troll farms.

“A small troll farm might have a million fake social media accounts,” Beeler said. “They wait for a school to have an issue that’s polarizing, like taking books out of the library or something to do with gender identification.”

Beeler says these groups are looking to start controversy by creating fake social media accounts and pitting people against each other with inflammatory posts.

“What they’re trying to do is stir up the locals to get engaged, and they’ll make some really, really crude statements just to really incite people to jump in and make comments. And then once they get the locals spun up, they usually disengage,” said Beeler.

The cost to schools to use TDR Technology Solution’s threat-thwarting service is $1.50 per student, according to Beeler.

As far as Henrico County goes, Beeler said his technology would have “blocked every one” of the threats this week, saving students and parents stress, saving time and resources for law enforcement, and saving taxpayers money.