What's the Frequency, Carter?

Man admits to impersonating transit officials, making unauthorized radio transmissions

By BJ Lutz
|  Tuesday, Aug 4, 2009  |  Updated 8:16 PM CDT
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CTA Radio Hacker Faces Up To 20 Years

NBC Chicago

Carter allegedly used a hand-held radio, similar to this one, to make unauthorized transmissions on the CTA's radio network.

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CTA Radio Hacker Faces Up To 20 Years

A 20-year-old Chicago man is accused of making over 300 unauthorized transmissions on CTA's radio network.
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The acute ear of a Chicago Transit Authority official lead to the arrest of a 20-year-old Chicago man who's now accused of impersonating CTA officials and making transmissions over the agency's radio frequencies.

Marcel Carter, of the 200 block of West 37th Place, was arrested Friday after he and his brother asked a CTA employee at a train station if there was a reward for a stolen radio. The employee put Carter on the phone with a dispatcher who recognized Carter's voice and kept him talking until police could arrive.

"It became fairly obvious early on that this was not a CTA person because he was not using the proper terminology," one CTA official said.

He was formally charged Monday with knowingly interfering with the operation of a mass transportation vehicle, a felony under the USA PATRIOT Act.

The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force has been investigating the case for more than a year, in which someone, posing sometimes as a train operator and other times as control center worker, made over 300 unauthorized transmissions, sometimes giving false or dangerous instructions to trains.

But CTA security agent Amy Kovalan said that at no time were passengers in immediate danger.

Carter's mother, Janice Merriwhether, said Monday that her son bought the radio from someone but had no idea of what he was doing with it.

The criminal complaint lays out one incident that allegedly happened on June 2:

An unauthorized transmission was made with the caller impersonating the operator of a CTA Blue Line train that was approaching the Logan Square station. When questioned by the CTA control center, the unauthorized caller then began impersonating the CTA control center and began citing rules authorizing a CTA train to proceed through a stop signal. At the time this was occurring, a CTA train was in fact approaching the Logan Square station and it arrived safely under the direction of the CTA Control Center.

And another incident, on July 1: 

An authorized CTA rail dispatcher instructed a rail operator on the green line to wait for three minutes at the Pulaski station. This type of instruction can be given to maintain a scheduled distance or “headway” between trains for customer convenience. It can also be given for safety reasons. For example, a rail operator may be told to wait at a station to decrease the risk of a collision or to keep trains away from the site of an incident, such as a fire or smoke in the subway. After the rail dispatcher told the rail operator to wait for three minutes at the Pulaski station at approximately 5:38 p.m. on July 1, 2009, the subject, impersonating the control center, told the rail operator to wait for only one minute. The dispatcher then repeated the instruction to wait for three minutes at the Pulaski stop. The subject responded by telling the rail operator to disregard the prior instruction from the dispatcher and to only wait for one minute.

The transmissions this summer came after a long absence since last June.  CTA officials said they were aware of the threat and put measures in place to ensure that the rogue transmissions would not be rebroadcast to train operators.  Kovalan said the agency is looking at taking their security measures one step further, and are looking at coding and encrypting their radio transmissions.

Shortly after police arrested Carter, he admitted to making the transmissions and produced the Kenwood-model radio that was tuned to a CTA radio frequency, the complain alleges.

Merriwhether said her son knew why he was being arrested, but didn't know that what he was doing was against the law.

During an initial court appearance Monday, Judge Morton Denlow set Carter's bond at $4,500 and put him under the supervision of his mother.  He was instructed to not use any broadcasting devices.

If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in jail and a 200,000 fine. He'll make another court appearance next week.

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