2016-02-18 / Front Page

Online Group Claims Involvement in Local School Threats

Olga Enger

A group that gained international media attention after they claimed responsibility for hoax threats made to schools in Europe, has told Newport This Week they are also involved in a series of local incidents.  

Rhode Island State Police declined to comment on the claim.

“I can not deny or confirm anything,” said Rhode Island State Police Major Joseph Philbin. “This is a very big case. I can not speak more about it.”

Notwithstanding the so-called group has also claimed responsibility for hoax threats in France, Britain and U.S. Territories of Guam, their direct involvement, if any, has not been determined.

The group, which calls itself Evacuation Squad, or the Evacuators, responded via email Thursday night, eight days after Newport This Week requested a comment. The group responded from their Russian based email, which was published on multiple Twitter accounts that were suspended, following the hoaxes overseas.

For over a week beginning on Sunday, Jan. 31, computerized hoax calls flooded into Newport and Rhode Island schools, eliciting significant police responses, evacuations and high absentee rates. The local hoaxes were received a few days after Evacuation Squad claimed involvement in the similar incidents overseas.

Evacuation Squad member “Viktor Olyavich” told Newport This Week they are behind the Newport calls, as well as hoaxes in New Jersey and Massachusetts.

The group claims they are made up of six international individuals. Their Twitter page had a picture Russian President Vladimir Putin, which led some media organizations to refer to them as “pro-Putin.” They also had a flag of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

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.”

Their intentions were also financial. The group included a fee structure, payable by Bitcoins, for requests to target a location or individual with a robocall threat. The payments ranged between $5 for a school and $50 for a major sporting event.

"Until March, 2015, you may send in requests for your school/work/business/etc to be sent a bomb threat. After March 1st, of 2015, we will be accepting Bitcoin only as payment," the group wrote.

The Evacuators asked customers to contact them through their Russian based email or an XMPP messaging protocol hosted on the domain, darkness.su.

On Thursday, Feb. 11, French anti-terror police detained and questioned 18-year-old computer hacker Vincent Lauton, the owner of darkness.su. The following day, Friday, Feb. 12, Rhode Island law enforcement arrested a 16-year-old Newport student on charges related to the local threats. He was charged with 15 felony counts of bomb threats and similar false reports, two counts of extortion and blackmail, and one charge of gaining access to a computer for fraudulent purposes.

Police tracked down the Newport student through a series of emails, including one sent by the suspect, Major Philbin previously told Newport This Week. The student is cooperating with authorities during their investigation as they search for possible accomplices, said the detective.

The week before the arrest, Rhode Island State announced that the hoax threats had been traced to Russia. Philbin told Newport This Week that was because the calls were initiated through a Russian website.

The Newport student has been in custody at the Rhode Island Training School in Cranston since his arrest. His attorney, Newport based Maurice Cusick, declined to comment Thursday night.

Lauton reportedly did not give up his server, darkness.su, to authorities, citing privacy concerns. He told Newport This Week he was not involved with the group Evacuation Group and had no way to identify the individuals who used his server.

“I don't see how decrypting my personal hard drives would have helped authorities. I’m not part of this group,” said Lauton through a Twitter message.

When asked about a Soviet Union flag that is displayed on his website, he pointed to his “.su” domain, which also represents the Soviet Union.

Lauton declined to comment about his online Russian payment account, WebMoney, which was approved in February 2015 and posted to his Twitter page. Around the same time, Lauton boasted on Twitter about obtaining a Prepaid Cash Services (PCS) card, which may be used to transfer Bitcoins to bank accounts.

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).

The technology is similar to that used by marketing companies and politicians where a user may enter phone numbers and the calls are generated from a computer.

Domestically, law enforcement has seen an uptick 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.

Olga Enger is a regular freelance contributor to Newport This Week. To contact Olga directly, email missolgita (at) gmail.com or @NewportWaveRI

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