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FBI, weather service investigating false reports

MILWAUKEE – The FBI has joined the effort to find whomever has been sending false reports of severe weather to the National Weather Service.

The service began getting the reports in mid-April through an online form on its Web site. The areas affected by the reports have included Milwaukee, La Crosse, Wis., Chicago, and Lincoln, Ill., said Tom Schwein, chief of the National Weather Service’s systems and facilities division for the central region in Kansas City, Mo.

“We’ve been detecting a regular pattern of a person who has been submitting false severe weather reports that are constructed in a way that seem very realistic,” Schwein said. “Whoever this person is seems to have knowledge of severe weather reports. When they send in reports, they seem very plausible.”

Schwein likened the reports to calling in a false bomb threat or pulling a fire alarm when there is no fire.

“People had to take cover, media interrupted their broadcasting for hours – we’ve alerted people unnecessarily and frightened them. This person has really misled us,” Schwein said.

More than 25 false reports were submitted from the same computer over one weekend this month, and the service typically gets 40 to 50 a month from that source, said Schwein.

“This has happened sporadically around the country,” said Schwein. “But anytime there is a weather pattern, we see this person reporting in. That’s what’s so unusual.”

The public can use a form on NWS local Web sites to anonymously report weather conditions in their areas. Since the onset of the false reports, the agency has added a notice in red at the top of the form that submitting false statements is a federal crime. The offense carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Schwein said investigators have traced the Internet protocol address of the computer sending the false reports, and any new reports from that address are being flagged. The FBI is working with the weather service to subpoena records about who is registered for the computer IP address, he said.

On April 25 a report came in stating that a tornado causing damage and injuries had hit Blue Mound, Ill. Local NBC affiliate WAND-TV in Decatur, Ill., interrupted normal broadcasting to give wall to wall coverage of the severe weather for approximately three hours, said Lee Davis, chief meteorologist with WAND-TV.

Severe weather was already present in Macon County, where Blue Mound is located. The tornado warning that was issued for the county through the Emergency Management Agency was given based on spotter reports, not on the false report, said Phil Anello, EMA Coordinator for Macon County.

Nevertheless, the reports of damage and injuries were false. That’s part of the pattern – false reports submitted when severe weather is already present in an area, making them more believable, Schwein said.

To combat the false reports, forecasters with the National Weather Service have begun checking the IP address of every report.