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Experts advise safety measures to keep online group sessions safe.

Zoom. The teleconferencing service has become a favorite communication tool during the coronavirus pandemic. It easily connects isolated families and friends, employees and employers, and offers a way for people to still learn and pray together. Everyone benefits.

Yet, like with most technology, there are those who find ways to abuse it.

Enter a new phrase — Zoom-bombing. This happens when uninvited participants or their messages enter a publicly announced Zoom session and make their presence known in ways that range from pure mischief to outright hate crimes punishable by law.

“I kind of felt violated,” said Rabbi Mitch Parker of B’nai Israel Congregation in West Bloomfield. He was starting a Talmud class April 1 when an individual wearing an elaborate mask appeared as a participant on screen. When the person began playing disruptive loud music, Parker ended the session quickly. He restarted a little later and was wrapping up the hour when the masked person appeared again with several others and more loud music. Parker shut the session down.

“There was no hate, but I didn’t give them the opportunity,” he said. Since the stay-at-home order, B’nai Israel has been holding morning and afternoon minyans as well as classes on Zoom. All were open to anyone — until the Zoom-bombing.

Now protective measures are in place — passwords, limited access beyond members except with permission and more.

“We learned our lesson,” Parker said. “We can’t be warm and welcoming any more. It’s unfortunate.”

This incident and another at a local synagogue that doesn’t want to comment publicly were reported to the Anti-Defamation League, local law enforcement and the Jewish Federation’s community-wide security team.

“We are tracking these incidents very seriously,” said Carolyn Normandin, ADL Michigan regional director. “This is a new popular trend that is reaching the Jewish community and other communities as well. We need to take a hardline approach on this.”

She suggests recording sessions or taking photos of a Zoom-bomber, because a captured image could lead to a computer URL and the perpetrator. She also urges reporting any incident.

The ADL website (adl.org) has a page dedicated to Zoom-bombing. The page lists reported incidents ranging from disruptions to virtual classrooms at the University of Southern California and a children’s storytelling hour in New Jersey. In Thousand Oaks, California, an online school board meeting was ended after someone shared a swastika, Nazi flag and pornographic images.

On the page, ADL cautions that while some incidents can be attributed to internet trolls without malicious intentions, there is concern “extremists could exploit the increasing reliance on video conferencing technology to target certain groups or advance their hateful messages.”

The ADL page also gives instructions for preventing Zoom-bombings, using Zoom.us settings. Some tips include adding co-hosts to monitor activity, disabling screen sharing for non-hosts, enable a waiting room to screen participants, not using your personal meeting ID to host public meetings, muting all participants and more.

“This is a nationwide problem, and I’m concerned it could increase as more people use these systems,” said Matthew Schneider, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, which covers 6.5 million people in 34 counties. “We are in the process of working with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, sheriffs and police chiefs.

“This could very well be a crime — disturbing a public meeting, using a computer to commit a crime, hate crimes. We want to get the word out to perpetrators: ‘This is not a harmless joke. You could end up with law enforcement knocking on your door.’”

Schneider says charges could range from a misdemeanor to a felony, and that only a handful of incidents have been reported so far in the Eastern District.

“Criminals will always take advantage of any crisis,” Schneider said, adding other examples of online misbehavior he’s seen, like people selling fake coronavirus test kits or pretending to give stimulus checks just to get bank account access.

“Zoom-bombing is just another way to use a crisis to be despicable,” he said.

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