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Swatting is the act of deceiving an emergency service (via such means as hoaxing an emergency services dispatcher) into dispatching an emergency response team based on the false report of a serious law enforcement emergency, such as a bomb threat, murder, hostage-taking or other alleged incident. The term derives from SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics), a specialized type of police unit in the United States and many other countries carrying military-style equipment such as door breaching weapons, submachine guns and assault rifles.
Swatting has been associated with online harassment campaigns, and episodes range from small events to large. In some swatting – from a single fabricated police report meant to discredit an individual as a prank or personal vendetta the deployment of bomb squads, SWAT units and other police units and the concurrent evacuations of schools and businesses.
The action of swatting – linked to the action of doxxing (obtaining and broadcasting, often via the Internet, the address and details of an individual) – has been described as terrorism due to its potential to cause disruption, waste the time of emergency services, divert attention from real emergencies and possibly cause injuries and psychological harm to persons targeted. The act of making false reports to emergency services is punishable by prison sentences in the U.S. and is a crime in many other countries.
In certain cases, prior to being swatted, the victim is messaged by the attacker with the term "Knock knock!". This represents the loud knocking upon the SWAT team arrival at the property.
Swatting has its origins in prank calls to emergency services. Increasing sophistication of the techniques employed and the objectives, notably attempts to direct response units of particular types, and in particular attempts to cause SWAT teams to be dispatched to particular locations, spawned the term 'swatting'. The term was used by the FBI as far back as 2008.
Caller ID spoofing, social engineering, TTY, prank calls and phone phreaking techniques may be variously combined. 911 systems (including telephony and human operators) have been tricked by calls placed from cities hundreds of miles away or even from other countries. The caller typically places a 911 call using a spoofed phone number with the goal of tricking emergency authorities into responding to an address with a SWAT team to an emergency that doesn't exist.
Laws covering swatting
- United States – It can be prosecuted through federal criminal statutes.
- "Conspiracy to retaliate against a witness, victim or informant".
- "Conspiracy to commit access device fraud and unauthorized access of a protected computer".
- An accomplice may be found guilty of "conspiring to obstruct justice".
- In the State of California pranksters bear the "full cost" of the response which can range up to $10,000.
- On November 18, 2015, U.S. Representative Katherine Clark sponsored a bill called the 'Interstate Swatting Hoax Act of 2015', aimed at increasing the penalties for swatting, as well as making swatting a federal crime. On January 31, 2016, at around 10pm, Clark was swatted by an anonymous caller who claimed there was an active shooter in the home. Melrose Police, not a SWAT team, responded to the home, and left after determining the call was a hoax.
In 2009, a blind phreaker Matthew Weigman was caught with the help of a Verizon fraud investigator named Billy Smith. He pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy including "involvement in a swatting conspiracy" and attempting to retaliate against a witness. He was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison.
In 2012, CNN interviewed political commentator Erick Erickson to discuss an incident in which he had been the victim of swatting. A caller to 911 gave Erickson's address as his own and claimed:
I just shot my wife, so.... I don't think I could come down there.... She's dead, now.... I'm looking at her.... I'm going to shoot someone else, soon.— 911 caller
In 2013, a number of U.S. celebrities became the victims of swatting pranks, including Sean Combs. In the past, there have been swatting incidents at the homes of Ashton Kutcher, Tom Cruise, Chris Brown, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Iggy Azalea, Jason Derulo, Snoop Dogg, Justin Bieber and Clint Eastwood.
In May 2014, a 16-year-old in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, was arrested for having made thirty fraudulent emergency calls across North America, leading to sixty charges "including uttering death threats, conveying false information with intent to alarm, public mischief and mischief to property." He had targeted a noted security expert, Brian Krebs.
On 27 August 2014, YouTube user Jordan Mathewson, known online as Kootra, live streamed a game of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive on Twitch. A viewer called 911 claiming that there was a shooting in the building with hostages. A SWAT team raided the office out of which Mathewson's gaming company, The Creatures LLC, was operating. Mathewson was thrown to the ground and searched as officers searched the room. The events were broadcast live on the internet, until law enforcement set the camera lens-down on Mathewson's desk. Videos of the swatting went viral, gaining over four million views on YouTube and being reported on news programs all over the world.
On 11 September 2014, Bukkit programmer Wesley "Wolvereness" Wolfe was the victim of a swatting incident. An unidentified Skype caller told police that Wolfe had shot his parents and was on a killing spree. Wolfe believed he was targeted in retaliation to his issuing of a DMCA takedown of CraftBukkit from the Bukkit repository.
On 6 November 2014, the home of an unnamed executive with Bungie, a developer of the Halo franchise and the recently released Destiny, was raided by local police after a call, purported to be from someone inside the house, said that there was a hostage situation at the residence. The caller had demanded a ransom of $20,000 and claimed they had planted explosives in the yard. After 45 minutes, police determined the call originated from a computer and not from the residence; they further stated that the perpetrator of the hoax could face a fine and one year in jail if apprehended.
On 5 December 2014, police in Coquitlam, British Columbia arrested a teenager using the pseudonym 'Obnoxious' who had committed at least 40 attempted and successful acts of swatting in several countries. The teenager, who historically targeted women he disliked online, used social engineering techniques and Skype tracking tools to obtain address details of victims from companies including Cox Communications and VOIP calling to mask his real location. He went so far as to livestream his swatting calls. The youth pleaded guilty to 23 crimes. A New York Times article on the case criticised Twitch for failing to block the user and his associates from the site.
On 3 January 2015, twenty Portland, Oregon, police officers were sent to the former home of Grace Lynn, a transgender woman. She stated that this was the culmination of months of online harassment from Gamergate supporters after she withdrew her support for the movement. The swatter, coming from Serbia, claimed to be not affiliated with GamerGate. Lynn said that she was alerted to the incident because she had proactively checked for on-line harassment daily, and she had defused the situation by contacting police.
On 15 January 2015, in Sentinel, Oklahoma, Washita County dispatchers received 911 calls from someone who identified himself as Dallas Horton and told dispatchers he had placed a bomb in a local preschool. Washita County Sheriff's Deputies and Sentinel Police Chief Louis Ross made forced entry into Horton's residence. Ross, who was wearing a bulletproof vest, was shot several times by Horton. Further investigation revealed that the calls did not originate from the home and led Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agents to believe Horton was unaware that it was law enforcement officers making entry. James Edward Holly confessed to investigators that he made the calls with two "nonfunctioning" phones because he was angry with Horton.
On May 14, 2015, Zachary Lee Morgenstern 19, of Cypress, Texas, was arrested after the police obtained his IP address from Twitter and Google. He had targeted schools and the police at Marshall, Minnesota for no apparent reason.
On 24 May 2015 at 5:41 am, in Richmond Hill, Ontario, York Regional Police received a 911 call claiming that his father had shot another family member with an assault rifle. A SWAT team attended the residence and discovered that it was a hoax.
In August 2015, the founder of the website Mumsnet was the target of a swatting, which resulted in the deployment of a London Metropolitan Police Service armed response unit attending her home address. The hoax was concurrent with a denial-of-service attack on the Mumsnet website and threats of a swatting attack.
On September 23, 2015, a well-known The Howard Stern Show Wack Packer named Jeff Curro (Jeff the Drunk), who is disabled, was the target of a swatting twice in one day. Curro's phone number is publicly available for fans to call him when he's live on the social networking service Periscope. The caller,from Florida, told the police Curro had fallen down then later called the police again saying he had overdosed on pills in his trailer home. Because of this, police were dispatched to his trailer twice in the same day. A neighbor heard the second dispatch and called somebody related to Curro to immediately check on him. She arrived after the police left to learn it was only a swatting incident. Curro logged onto his Periscope to announce immediately what had just happened. He gave out the phone number of the caller live on the air.
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- "18 U.S. Code § 1513 – Retaliating against a witness, victim, or an informant". law.cornell.edu. Retrieved January 2009.
- "18 U.S. Code § 1030 – Fraud and related activity in connection with computers". law.cornell.edu. Retrieved January 2009.
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- "18 U.S. Code § 371 – Conspiracy to commit offense or to defraud United States". Retrieved January 2009.
- Jeff Black, Staff Writer, NBC News, 11 September 2013, California governor signs bill to crack down on celebrity 'swatting', Accessed 11 September 2013
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- Matthew Weigman Guilty Plea Press Release, U.S. Department of Justice, 29 January 2009, retrieved 10 July 2009
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- FBI catches swatter who said “you can’t catch a hacker”, 12 AUG 2015
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- The crime of swatting fake 9-1-1 calls have real consequences, FBI
- SWATting, a Deadly Political Game
- Guilty Plea: Phone Phreaks Use Caller-ID Spoofing to Get Foes Raided By SWAT
- Teenager Receiving Life In Prison For ‘SWATTING’ Gamer Is A Satirical Hoax Which Stirred Social Media
- The Psychology of Swatting