Federal, state and local agencies investigating the hoax calls reporting active shooters at Maine high schools Tuesday are facing a daunting technological task in trying to identify the origin of the calls that prompted lockdowns and evacuations, a cybersecurity expert said Wednesday.

Sanford police said the call in that community – the first of 10 received across the state – came from an internet phone number using Voice Over Internet Protocol.

Parents wait outside Sanford Memorial Gym to pick up students who were bused there after a report of an active shooter at Sanford High School on Tuesday. Gregory Rec

Adam Wandt, an attorney and an assistant professor of public policy and vice chair for technology of the Department of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said the Voice Over Internet Protocol used in the call made to Sanford High School will be difficult for law enforcement to trace, but not impossible. VOIP allows smartphone users to have a second phone number that essentially hides their registered phone number.

Wandt, whose areas of expertise include cybersecurity, crime prevention, terrorism and violent extremism, has done research for the  FBI, the National Institute of Justice, Interpol, the United Nations and the U.S. Bureau of Justice.

In a phone interview Wednesday night, he said another smartphone app that is hard to trace is called SpoofCard, which allows users to call and text from a virtual number to protect their personal information and privacy. It allows the user to manipulate calls by using multiple numbers, Wandt said.

These apps allow smartphone users to hide or buffer their actual phone numbers, and Wandt said some criminals have caught on to the advantages, making a trace challenging and more time consuming, especially if the investigating agency needs to obtain search warrants to trace a VOIP number or IP address.


“These types of buffers make it more challenging, but not impossible to trace a call, and it can certainly complicate an investigation,” Wandt said. “This is an egregious use of technology.”

Tuesday’s spate of false reports were a first for Maine, but have become increasingly commonplace across the country this school year. There have been nearly 200 reports of hoaxes, commonly referred to as swatting, in the last few months. On Wednesday, three schools in Cincinnati were targeted by what police describe as fake threats about active shooters, according to local news reports.

Threats were reported in Maine at Sanford, Portland, Brunswick, Ellsworth, Houlton, Winslow, Wiscasset and Gardiner Area high schools, Fort Fairfield schools, and Oceanside High School in Rockland, according to public statements and official social media posts.

Police in Maine have released few details about the calls, but some departments indicated the caller or callers gave details about the shooter and claimed people had been injured.


The police response was especially intense in Sanford, where the caller said students had already been injured. As students and teachers locked themselves in classrooms, officers and other first responders from the region descended on the school.


When asked what would motivate someone to make an active shooter call, Wandt said there are a variety of factors to consider, the most common being a grudge against a person or institution, mental illness, or getting satisfaction in watching events unfold on TV or social media.

“There’s not one reason that can explain an active shooter hoax,” he said.

The swatting incident left hundreds of students across the state feeling rattled emotionally and mentally as they gradually came to realize that Maine schools are not immune from random acts of violence, said Shawn Jimenez, a senior at Gardiner Area High School. Gardiner was one of the Maine schools that went into lockdown after receiving an active shooter threat.

Jimenez, who was in the high school cafeteria when the threat was received, hid in a back room with cafeteria workers, but he said the lockdown went into effect so quickly that some students ended up hiding inside bathroom stalls. The lockdown at Gardiner Area High School, which lasted about 90 minutes, terrified staff and students, and left many fearful that it could happen again.

“It caused a lot of emotional and mental distress,” he said Wednesday evening. “We’ve done a lot of training in the past, but nothing prepares you for something like this.”

Jimenez, who serves as president of the Maine Junior Classical League, a student-run organization dedicated to the appreciation of the classical world, decided to take action.



He is organizing a peaceful protest scheduled to take place Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Capitol Building in Augusta. He said the protest is in response to what he described as “the lack of urgency and education surrounding both gun violence and safety in public schools.”

He is hopeful the protest will attract students, parents and community members from across Maine to talk about the impact the threat of school shootings has had on their mental health. He also wants to use the platform to talk about legislation restricting assault weapons and he will read statements from friends that experienced or were near the mass shooting that took place in May at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Erica Robidoux hugs her daughter Alexis, 14, a student at Sanford High School, while talking with a reporter outside of Sanford Memorial Gym on Tuesday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

There have been at least 182 incidents of swatting incidents so far this school year in the United States, according to the Educator’s School Safety Network, an Ohio-based nonprofit that compiles data about school violence. Amy Klinger, co-founder of the organization, said that while actual active school shooter events are statistically rare, schools and law enforcement have to be prepared to deal with fake reports and hold the people making them accountable.

“The big takeaway is people need to be prepared for this to occur,” she said. “It’s happening with such frequency that there’s a good chance a school will get a hoax call like this.”

An investigation by NPR last month showed a common pattern in swatting calls this fall and calls last spring falsely reporting bombs at schools in several states. Many of those calls came from a VOIP phone number with an account tied to IP addresses in Ethiopia, NPR reported.


An FBI memo sent to schools in New York and obtained by Wired described a single subject who may be behind many of the hoax calls. The memo described the caller as a male “with a heavy accent described as Middle Eastern or African,” Wired reported.

A spokesperson for the FBI Boston Division said Wednesday that the FBI is working alongside law enforcement partners and additional details about the hoax calls in Maine are not being released to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation.

First responders block off streets around Portland High School after responding to a call about an active shooter at the school that was quickly deemed to be a hoax on Tuesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The Maine Information Analysis Center continues to investigate the calls and is working in collaboration with its federal partners, said Shannon Moss, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Public Safety. Local police referred questions about the calls and investigation to the FBI.


The Maine Gun Safety Coalition issued a statement Wednesday regarding the hoax active shooter calls.

“While the 911 personnel soon realized that this was all a hoax, the damage was already done – emotional damage to students and teachers, who were locked down, to parents who were horrified by text messages from their children, to law enforcement officers who quickly mobilized. Social media magnified the shock with rumors about multiple deaths. We can only hope that the FBI will be able to track down the perpetrator,” Camilla Shannon, chair of the board of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said in a statement.

Shannon said the state as well as Maine law enforcement needs to take action by passing a combination of “commonsense gun safety legislation,” as well as increased education around gun safety storage and access to free cable locks for securing firearms.

“A generation of students is growing up with anxiety and fear,” Shannon said. “We need to work to reverse this terrible trend.”

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