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FBI starts U.S. campaign to deter lasers being aimed at aircraft

By Letitia Stein

TAMPA Fla. (Reuters) - The Federal Bureau of Investigation said on Tuesday it will pay up to $10,000 for tips leading to arrests of pranksters who point handheld lasers at aircraft, part of a national campaign to crack down on a growing threat known as "lasing."

Officials said what looks like a small beam of light from the lasers on the ground can travel for more than a mile and illuminate a cockpit, temporarily blinding the pilots inside.

No crashes have been reported but some pilots have required medical attention due to the lasers, said Paul Wysopal, special agent in charge for the FBI field office in Tampa, Florida. The lasers can be no more sophisticated than the pointer lasers available for a few dollars at office supply stores.

"The entire cockpit goes green, and your entire vision goes green," said David Bouffard, a deputy sheriff and pilot in Sarasota County who was targeted by a laser during two recent helicopter flights. "You can’t even see your instruments right in front of you for a few seconds.”

During the next three months, the FBI's 56 field offices around the United States will offer rewards of up to $10,000 for information leading to arrests on a laser-pointing felony charge punishable by up to five years in prison.

Digital billboards, radio announcements and social media campaigns are planned to spread the word about the laser dangers, the agency said.

The FBI first began tracking lasing incidents in 2005 and since then said it has seen an increase of more than 1,000 percent in the deliberate targeting of aircraft by people with handheld lasers.

Last year, the FBI reported 3,960 laser strikes against aircraft, an average of almost 11 per day, and officials estimate that thousands more cases go unreported each year.

Eighty-four of the 141 people arrested nationally for pointing lasers from 2005 to 2013 were convicted, Wysopal said.

"It could be a prank but it has consequences unfortunately," Wysopal said.

The summer campaign builds on a pilot project started in February in a dozen U.S. cities. The FBI reported a 19 percent decrease in lasing incidents in those cities, which included Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, Sacramento, California, Albuquerque, New Mexico, San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Bill Trott)

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