You've been swatted: How hackers are infiltrating the homes of A-list celebrities
In the internet age, it's harder than ever for celebrities to protect their private lives, as Tim Walker reports.
Tim Walker is The Independent’s Los Angeles correspondent, covering entertainment and other concerns from the West Coast of the US. He was previously a features writer and the editor of the paper’s diary column. His first novel, Completion, was published in 2014.
Saturday 02 March 2013
At around 2am on the night of 10 October last year, a slumbering Los Angeles suburb was disturbed by sirens, as LAPD squad cars converged on a mansion in the well-heeled neighbourhood of Calabasas, just over the hills from Malibu. The emergency services had fielded a 911 call claiming shots had been fired in the house; the gunman, they were told, was threatening residents in the smart gated community, and had vowed to turn his weapon on the police if they showed up. Armed officers swept the 1.3-acre property and those next door, but found nothing. The owner of the 10,000sq ft house – 18-year-old Canadian pop sensation Justin Bieber – was away on tour. The 911 call was a hoax, and Bieber the latest victim of a dangerously popular prank: 'celebrity swatting'.
Swatting was once a practical joke played by online gamers: if a Call of Duty mission went badly, a particularly vindictive player might place a hoax call to the police, bringing a tooled-up SWAT team to the door of his or her opponents. Now, however, the joke is on Hollywood’s biggest stars. It began with a smattering of incidents: a fake hostage situation at Miley Cyrus’s home in August, another at Charlie Sheen’s. Police helicopters swarmed over Ashton Kutcher’s place in October, at a cost of $10,000 to taxpayers. And then, in November, a caller alleged a woman was tied up with duct tape in one of Simon Cowell’s six bathrooms.
In December, Hollywood police arrested the 12-year-old boy responsible for the Bieber and Kutcher calls, and it seemed the fad might have faded. But then, in mid-January, the homes of Tom Cruise, Chris Brown and the Kardashian family were all “swatted” within five days of one another. After machine gun-toting cops closed down her street, Kim Kardashian’s half-sister and fellow reality star Kendall Jenner tweeted, “kids are really stupid. You know you can get arrested for something like this? #pointless lol”.
It’s probably no coincidence that Bieber, Kutcher and Cyrus have all appeared on the MTV show Punk’d, in which celebrities prank each other with rarely hilarious results. But the LAPD is not amused. The department has had to prepare its officers to anticipate false alarms when they answer an emergency call. Fearing the spread of the phenomenon, the city’s police chief Charlie Beck has demanded tighter laws and stricter punishments for the perpetrators. “[Swatting] not only draws public safety resources away from real emergencies,” Beck told the Los Angeles Times, “it places people at significant risk by the dispatch of armed police officers.”
In Kutcher’s case, the caller claimed the house was being robbed by Russians. “There were a lot of staff around the place, and they didn’t all speak English,” says Richard Winton, a crime reporter who has covered swatting for the LA Times. “If a celebrity’s security man were to come to the door without realising it’s the cops, and pull out his weapon…? Sooner or later, something really bad could happen.”
According to the celebrity news site TMZ, the 12-year-old swatter was a computer whizz from a dysfunctional Southern California family, who “refuses to go to school and sits at his computer day and night, communicating with other hackers.” In 2009 a Massachusetts teenager was sentenced to 11 years in prison for his part in more than 250 swatting incidents, but the California boy is reportedly more likely to receive counselling than jail time. To place the calls, he used a device designed to help deaf people send phone messages by typing text. Men can alter their voices to sound like women. Hacking software can bounce calls through several internet providers to disguise its origins. All this technology is freely available online.
Celebrities get to fly in first class, live in spectacular homes and enjoy the adulation of millions. But these days they also have to endure an increasingly bizarre selection of criminal behaviours. Lisa Bloom is a leading Los Angeles lawyer who has represented a number of high-profile clients, including Lindsay Lohan’s father and Mel Gibson’s ex-girlfriend. “We’re seeing a perfect storm of factors,” she says. “There’s now unprecedented access to information via the internet: we can go online and find out people’s addresses and what they’re doing minute-by-minute.
“At the same time there’s a huge rise in the level of interest in celebrities. People have always been interested in movie stars, but it used to be that they would do a movie and then be hidden behind the curtains of their homes. Now we have entire TV networks devoted to celebrity news. American college students can name more Kardashians than they can wars we’re in. Celebrities are expected not just to make movies, but to be out there doing public appearances, TV shows, tweeting, posting on Facebook and Instagram. So people think they’re really connected to their favourite stars, that they’re their friends.”
Between October 2008 and August 2009, a handful of bored, moderately well-off 18- and 19-year-olds from Los Angeles researched celebrities’ addresses online, used Twitter and TMZ to figure out when those celebrities would be out of town, and then burgled their homes. The victims of the so-called “Bling Ring” included Lohan, Rachel Bilson of The OC and Megan Fox. In less than a year, the teenagers stole possessions worth approximately $3m (£1.9m); mostly, they were taken with the trappings of celebrity: expensive jewellery and make-up, designer clothing, Louis Vuitton luggage.
One of their first marks was Paris Hilton, because, they later admitted, they considered her sufficiently “dumb” to leave her house unlocked. In fact, they found her front-door key under the mat. Hilton was burgled at least five times, Bilson six. After a single night at Orlando Bloom’s, the gang walked away with $500,000 worth of watches, clothes and art. They’d allegedly targeted Bloom because his then-girlfriend, now-wife Miranda Kerr was a Victoria’s Secret model, and ringleader Rachel Lee wanted some new underwear.
Winton, whose newspaper coined the “Bling Ring” moniker, believes the perpetrators of these strange new offences are fixated primarily on their quarries’ stardom. “They commit the crimes not for normal criminal motives,” he says, “but for the celebrity status of the victims. In the case of the Bling Ring, they were less interested in what they got than who they got it from.”
The teenagers were finally hoist with their own petard, when Lohan and reality TV star Audina Patridge released security footage of the burglaries at their homes to TMZ, which published the clips, leading to the suspects’ identification. Police also used Facebook to trace the connections between members of the gang, who, it turned out, were not so far removed from the celebrities they’d victimised. Almost all of them were from wealthy Calabasas. One, Alexis Neiers, now 21, was filming her own reality show at the time of the robberies. She plainly confused herself with a star, telling an interviewer before her arraignment in 2009, “God didn’t give me these talents and looks to just sit around being a model or being famous. I want to lead a huge charity organisation. I want to lead a country, for all I know.”
In a way, Neiers is a celebrity now. The Bling Ring, Sofia Coppola’s film based on the affair, starring Emma Watson, will be released in the US in June. In the meantime, Neiers’ reality show Pretty Wild has been broadcast, and, like lots of celebrities, she has spent time in rehab. As she awaited sentencing – she was jailed for one month for her part in the burglaries – she was incarcerated in a cell once occupied by Paris Hilton. In the cell next-door was Lindsay Lohan.
A week after Tom Cruise got swatted, I drove to Beverly Hills to stalk celebrities the old-fashioned way. Dotting the sidewalks of the neighbourhood are vending machines flogging $5 “Star Maps”. The maps aren’t 100 per cent accurate or up-to-date, but with Google’s assistance it’s easy to see whether a famous person still lives at their alleged address. If you drive north into 90210 from the police station on Santa Monica Boulevard, you enter a celebrity safari park of palm-lined streets and multi-million dollar mansions. At least half the vehicles criss-crossing the quiet boulevards are open-top tour vans, transporting gawpers to the front yards of the stars.
I went to Simon Cowell’s place first. According to the map, he lives just around the corner from Phil Collins. Larry King’s place is one block over. The Osbournes are a five-minute walk away. The street is leafy and tranquil. There’s a Beverly Hills Neighbourhood Watch sign fixed to a lamppost out front. A Latino gardener in a green polo shirt was hosing the lawn and the chrome fencing, over which I could make out what looked like a big, bland, vaguely Mediterranean-style house, with white walls and wooden shutters on the windows. Frankly, I could see a lot more of it by watching the “Judge’s Houses” episodes of The X Factor.
I tried Cruise’s address next. It’s across Sunset and a little further up the hill, where the houses get even grander, with immaculate 20-foot hedgerows to mask them from the prying eyes of passers-by, and security firm logos on the reinforced steel gates. Out on the sidewalks lay unclaimed copies of the day’s LA Times, their owners presumably reluctant to walk the half-mile to the end of their driveways to pick them up. This is Big Game Country: George Michael lives on the same winding canyon road as Cruise. In the neighbouring hills, says the Star Map, you’ll find the homes of Russell Crowe, Kenny Rogers, Pete Sampras, Christina Aguilera and Dr Phil.
Cruise has several properties, including at least two more in California. But this is the one that was swatted. (He wasn’t home at the time – police came across some security men and a cook.) The actor reportedly bought the seven-bedroom house and accompanying estate for $30.5m in 2007. It’s in a road too narrow to turn around; I wondered how all the cop cars got up there in a hurry. It probably has a fabulous view, but the trees at the front are so high and lush that I couldn’t see a thing. So I got bored and went home and surfed the web instead.
With Google Earth, I checked out Cruise’s pool, Cruise’s tennis court and Cruise’s ornamental water feature. If I’d paid the $9.99 monthly subscription for celebrityaddressaerial.com, one of the websites used by the Bling Ring, I could probably have gleaned yet more detail. People have always wanted to get close to the rich and famous. But the internet has made it simple to invade a star’s personal space without even jumping the fence.
Chris Chaney was 2,400 miles from Beverly Hills when he pinched naked pictures of Scarlett Johansson. Celebrity nudes have become a common feature of the web’s lower depths, and Chaney – now famous as “The Hollywood Hacker” – made them his speciality. In December, the 35-year-old was jailed for 10 years by a Los Angeles judge. Between 2008 and his arrest in October 2011, he hacked the personal email accounts of countless stars, including Johansson.
Unemployed and living with his grandmother in Jacksonville, Florida, Chaney had no advanced IT skills; he simply compiled a list of celebrities on a whim, and began trying to guess their Gmail addresses. Once he found a working email account that seemed to correspond to a famous person, he would Google the personal security information needed to access it. Paris Hilton’s emails, he knew, had been hacked that way before, because her pet chihuahua’s name, Tinkerbell, was public knowledge: a key under the doormat. In the internet age, says Winton, “You can look up anyone and find out a lot about them. But it’s even easier with celebrities, because as they rise up the scale, they often reveal everything about themselves to try to get attention.”
Once he unlocked one account, Chaney came across email exchanges with other well-known figures, and he started to hop from one account to another. “It started as curiosity and it turned into just being addicted to seeing behind the scenes of what's going on with these people you see on the big screen every day,“ he later told a local news station. He even went so far as to impersonate stars and their friends, so as to solicit salacious material. Pretending to be Aguilera’s stylist, he sent a message to the singer asking for semi-clothed self-portraits, which he later leaked online.
Chaney wasn’t only interested in naked celebrities. He also hacked the accounts of movie producers, because he was fascinated by the filmmaking process. He plainly became fond of some of his victims, telling GQ magazine that Mila Kunis “was as funny in person as she is [on screen]”, an assessment he based on her email exchanges with the likes of Justin Timberlake.
But Chaney’s actions had darker consequences. The 23-year-old TV actress Renee Olstead testified at his trial that she’d attempted suicide after he leaked graphic images of her. In a videotaped deposition, Johansson called Chaney’s actions “perverted and reprehensible.” He’d not only stolen the naked shots the actress sent to her then-husband, Ryan Reynolds; he’d also followed the disintegration of their marriage in their emails, long before the press learned of their separation. “It was weird to read stuff like that,” he said. “It was almost too personal.”
Would Chaney have actively harassed Scarlett Johansson without Google to satisfy his celebrity appetite? Probably not. The web offers temptations to those who might never otherwise have crossed that blurred line into criminality. The Bling Ring, the Hollywood Hacker and the 12-year-old celebrity swatter don’t fit a standard criminal profile, agrees Bloom, “but these aren’t standard crimes. What does a swatter get out of it? It’s not as if they’ve broken into a liquor store and stolen money; there’s no personal gain. They’re just doing it for the excitement.”
Yet these distinctly modern crimes are also an iteration of darker, more disturbing ones that existed well before the web. “If you follow the court system in Los Angeles,” says Winton, “You’ll find restraining orders and protection orders for A-list stars being taken out every day.” Among the Hollywood names who’ve involved the police in stalking incidents in recent years are: Kunis, Cyrus, Halle Berry, Alec Baldwin, Madonna, Jennifer Aniston, Keira Knightley, Michael Douglas, Anna Kournikova and Steven Spielberg. The LAPD has an entire unit, the Threat Management Unit, devoted to tackling stalkers. It was set up in response to the 1989 murder of sitcom actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was shot by an obsessed fan.
Lisa Bloom frequently appears on television as a legal pundit. “I’m not Jennifer Aniston,” she says, “but I’ve had people threaten me online, or wait for me outside the studio. I’ve had emails from people I’ve never met who think they’re my boyfriend. People who are sick and twisted believe they have a relationship with you, and it goes back to those personal connections that celebrities make online: people really feel that they know you.”
Bieber, who recently surpassed Lady Gaga to become the most-followed celebrity on Twitter, is something of a crime magnet; the two facts may or may not be connected. In December it emerged that a convicted killer with an unhealthy fixation on the androgynous young star had plotted his murder. Dana Martin, 45, who is serving two life sentences in a New Mexico jail, was so infatuated by Bieber that he commissioned a tattoo of the Canadian’s face on his leg. But when Bieber failed to respond to his fan-mail, he hired two hitmen to strangle the teen with a paisley necktie before his sold out concert at Madison Square Garden in November. Fortunately for Bieber, Martin had a change of heart, and turned in his accomplices before they could carry out his orders. The show went off without a hitch.
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