Ex-hacker Kevin Mitnick is a hero to the small town of River Rouge, Michigan, after using his tech skills to help officials nab the culprit behind a harrowing series of bomb threats.
The trouble began a few months ago, when staff members at River Rouge High School began receiving threatening phone calls at home from an anonymous caller, police Detective Lt. John Keck says. Then, on 2 April , a caller phoned in a bomb threat to the high school during school hours - students were evacuated and the town's three patrol cars diverted to the school to conduct a thorough search. No bomb was found. Another call came in on April 5th, with similar results.
It wasn't the crime of the century, but taking place barely two weeks ahead of the fifth anniversary of the Columbine massacre, the hoaxes unnerved some residents of the Detroit suburb, which boasts a population in the high four digits. "I don't put anything past these kids now days, I really don't," says Keck.
But when the detective served a search warrant on SBC Ameritech for the source of the calls, the phone company came up dry.
The dead-end led Keck to suspect that the caller was employing some hi-tech means to cover his tracks. "I didn't know if he was spoofing Caller I.D., using calling cards, a computer phone, doing it from overseas, I didn't know," says Keck. The detective began searching the Internet for technical guidance, which led him to Kevin Mitnick, who'd earlier demonstrated a technique for spoofing Caller ID on the specialty cable network TechTV.
Mitnick says he was happy to help. "It's a big deal over there in that little community, because apparently he was really wreaking havoc," says Mitnick, a security consultant and author of the book the Art of Deception.
Based on Keck's information, Mitnick quickly ruled out Caller ID spoofing, but volunteered to give the detective a crash course in telephony, telling him exactly what kind of information to request from the phone company.
Armed with Mitnick's advice, Keck went back to SBC and demanded a "terminating number search" for any calls made to the high school's lines on the dates of the bomb threats. This time, SBC tracked the calls as far as cell phone carrier Sprint PCS, and identified the specific trunks on which the calls entered the local phone network - information that Keck now knew how to interpret. The detective served a search warrant on Sprint, and on April 19th he had the suspect's name and cell phone number.
That same day, two more bomb threats came into the school, and Sprint quickly confirmed that they originated from the same cell phone, which belonged to a 15-year-old student. Within an hour, Keck was escorting the teen from woodshop. He'd apparently made the calls, unnoticed, from class. "It is kind of funny, I'll admit, but this is not the time for these kinds of games," says Keck.
The prankster confessed, and this week pleaded guilty to a single count of making bomb threats. He's not expected to spend any time incarcerated. "They're going to try to come up to some sentence that will put him on track to be more productive," says Keck.
Mitnick's role in helping solve the mystery made the local paper, and "everybody in town now knows who Kevin Mitnick is, and they realize that he helped out tremendously," says Keck.
But Mitnick says part of the credit belongs to the man who ended his hacking spree in 1995. "Basically, I gave them the same techniques that [Tsutomu] Shimomura used to track me," he says.
And does the ex-hacker have any mixed feelings about helping bust River Rouge's trouble-making teen? "He wasn't really hacking," says Mitnick. "He was really just being a jerk."