Imagine this: you're being watched. Someone out there is stalking your every move, and you have no idea how close they are to you. You don't know who you can trust. All you know is that you're vulnerable, because some creep has inexplicable access to you. Because they've used your own cell phone to throw open a door to your most private life.
It's a terrifying thing to imagine, and a worse reality that three families lived through back in 2007. It started in February of that year for the Kuykendalls and two other families in Fircrest, Washington. 16-year-old Courtney Kuykendall alleges that her phone started sending text messages out to her friends all on its own. And if that weren't terrifying enough, next came ominous calls at all hours of the day and night.
Threats were rasped over the line in a scratchy voice. Every day, declarations of hatred and murderous intent were delivered through the personal devices of the families. Promises that all of their throats would be slit, and that death would come to pets, children, and grandparents alike. All from a villain the families called " Restricted," after the word that appeared on their caller ID.
Idle threats? It certainly didn't seem like it when the family received information about their daily lives—what they happened to be wearing, when they left the house, when they were alone, the code to their new security system. Things a person could only know if they were all too close. One instance occurred as one of the victims was cutting limes in her kitchen. She received an ominous call that simply said, "I prefer lemons."
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Their phones would turn on all on their own, and the ringtones would change unbidden. And then there were the voicemails playing back recordings of conversations the family had in private. On one memorable occasion, the Kuykendalls were even played a clip of a discussion they had with a local police detective—a warning to stay away from the law.
The harassment was absolutely relentless. Annoyance became constant terror. Despite changing phones and opening new accounts—twice—the caller always found their way back in.
Those behind this emotional terrorization were growing increasingly bold, and it seemed as though the families affected were powerless to stop them. Months passed with the case in the hands of the police, but investigators were stumped. At the time of the investigation, Sprint spokesman Matt Sullivan said, "we are unaware of any technology that would allow the activity that's being reported here." The police began to wonder if these apparent victims had just concocted a chilling and elaborate hoax.
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The others targeted by the cell phone stalkers had close ties to the Kuykendall family—Darci Price, the older and married Kuykendall daughter, and the Kuykendall's neighbor, Andrea McKay. And when the authorities tried to trace the nefarious activity, it always led back to the user's own phone. Even when the device was turned off.
But while cell phone companies and local law enforcement couldn't seem to understand how a criminal could pull something like this off, surveillance experts said that this kind of terror was all too possible. In fact, it's an almost easy task for the right kind of hacker in this age of rapidly advancing technology. Electronic surveillance expert James Atkinson confirmed to news outlets at the time that cell phones could be operated remotely. They could take pictures and pinpoint locations, and, according to Atkinson, most cops couldn't even begin to comprehend how.
Other security experts weighed in, saying that "spoofing" a phone is a totally viable method of stalking. Former FBI agent Brad Garrett said that this enables a person to mask or change the number they're making calls from. A more proficient hacker can even clone a cell phone, which gives them the power to do everything the actual owner of the phone can do on their device. However, it requires far more sophisticated technology to actually listen in on a phone call.
Contemplating this unusual case, Atkinson deduced that it had to be an instance of cell phone manipulation. Trained by the National Security Agency and asked to testify in front of Congress about a leak of classified Coast Guard information, he's no stranger to the world of information hacking. He said that in order to pull this off, the perpetrator must have hacked into the website used by the cell phone companies and manipulated the software and firmware in their cell phones.
It takes complicated software to hack phones, but experts say that even a determined prankster could cause ripples. Using programs developed by more advanced and tech-savvy hackers, newbies tend to break into computer and cell phones to try and make a name for themselves. But if this was meant to be a standard bullying routine, the perpetrator broke several very serious laws, including federal wiretapping statutes.
Most of the harassments and threats centered on teenage Courtney, and while some may have been suspicious of her in particular, the trouble persisted even when her phone was taken away by her family. So was this all a terrifying case of cyber-bullying gone wrong? A survey done by an online safety group, WiredSafety.org, said that the most prevalent threat children faced from technology wasn't cunning pedophiles, but rather the kid sitting next to them in school. Most bullying online or over the phone is done by another child, albeit anonymously.
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Authorities suggested that if this was truly an outsider wreaking all this havoc upon the Kuykendalls, it was, in all likelihood, a tech-savvy teenage boy. But when even kids can cause this kind of damage, how does someone stay safe? In the wake of the drama, Garrett recommended a few simple methods: change your phone password regularly, purchase wireless security software, and in the event your phone is hacked, take it immediately to the police, get a new phone, and inform your cell phone provider of the problem.
As for the case of the Kuykendalls, which is nearly 15 years old, no suspect was ever apprehended. Once the story blew up in the media, there were no follow-ups, arrests, or persons of interest. The mystery simply dried up once the FBI got involved. In fact, some sources indicate that the calls stopped altogether once the federal bureau stepped in. If the situation ever saw any sort of resolution, no victims or members of law enforcement ever made a statement on it.
Did a hacker's reign of terror crumble with the release of the iPhone? Did they lose their nerve when things got too serious? Or did someone plot an elaborate joke to get on TV? We may never know. But think twice the next time you give out your phone number.