Swatting is a criminal harassment tactic of deceiving an emergency service (via such means as hoaxing an emergency services dispatcher) into sending a police and emergency service response team to another person's address. This is triggered by false reporting of a serious law enforcement emergency, such as a bomb threat, murder, hostage situation, or a false report of a "mental health" emergency, such as reporting that a person is allegedly suicidal or homicidal and may or may not be armed.
The term derives from the law enforcement unit "SWAT" (special weapons and tactics), a specialized type of police unit in many countries, carrying military-style equipment such as door breaching weapons, submachine guns, automatic rifles, and sniper rifles. A threat may result in the evacuations of schools and businesses. Advocates have called for swatting to be described as terrorism due to its use to intimidate and create the risk of injury or death.
Making false reports to emergency services is a criminal offense in many countries, punishable by fines and imprisonment. In March 2019, a California man was sentenced to 20 years in prison for carrying out a fatal 2017 swatting. It carries a high risk of violence, and causes tax dollars to be wasted by the city or county when responding to a false report of a serious law enforcement emergency, as well as liability if things go wrong.: In California, swatters bear the "full cost" of the response which can lead to fines up to $10,000.
Bomb threats were a concern to police in the 1970s, with some public buildings such as airports being evacuated in response to hoax calls that were designed to cause mass panic and public disruption, or to delay exams at educational institutions. In recent decades, hoax callers sometimes make use of techniques to disguise their identity or country of origin.
Swatting has origins in prank calls to emergency services. Over the years, callers used increasingly sophisticated techniques to direct response units of particular types. In particular, attempts to have SWAT teams be dispatched to particular locations spawned the term swatting. The term was used by the FBI as early as 2008, and has also entered into Oxford Dictionaries Online in 2015.
Caller ID spoofing, social engineering, TTY, prank calls, and phone phreaking techniques may be variously combined by swatting perpetrators. 911 systems (including computer telephony systems and human operators) have been tricked by calls placed from cities hundreds of miles away from the location of the purported call, or even from other countries. The caller typically places a 911 call using a spoofed phone number (so as to hide the fraudulent caller's real location) with the goal of tricking emergency authorities into responding with a SWAT team to a fabricated emergency.
Measures against swatting
In October 2018, the Seattle Police Department took a three-pronged approach to combating swatting: educating 911 dispatchers to identify potential swatting calls, ensuring responding officers are aware of the potential for a hoax situation, and creating an opt-in registry for people who fear that they might become victims of swatting, such as journalists, celebrities, or live streamers. Using the registry, these people can provide cautionary information to the police, which will inform officers responding to potential swatting attempts targeted at the victim's address.
Security reporter Brian Krebs recommends that police departments take extra care when responding to calls received at their non-emergency numbers, or through text-to-speech services (TTY), since these methods are often employed by out-of-area swatters who cannot connect to the regional 911 center. :
In September 2019, the Seattle Police Department formed the Swatting Mitigation Advisory Committee, a group of subject matter experts, both community and police representatives. The purpose of the committee is to better understand swatting by collecting and analyzing data, formalizing protocols, and advocating for broader awareness and prevention. The committee is currently co-chaired by Naveed Jamali and Sean Whitcomb, creator of the anti-swatting registry.
In the United States, swatting 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 California, callers bear the "full cost" of the response which can range up to $10,000
In 2011, California State Senator Ted Lieu authored a bill to increase penalties for swatting. His own family became a victim of swatting when the bill was proposed. A dozen police officers, along with firefighters and paramedics surrounded his family home.
In 2015 a New Jersey State Assemblyman Paul D. Moriarty announced a bill to increase sentences for hoax emergency calls, and was targeted by a hoax. The bill proposed prison sentences up to ten years and fines of to $150,000.
A 2015 bipartisan bill in Congress sponsored by Katherine Clark and Patrick Meehan made swatting a federal crime with increased penalties. Congresswoman Clark wrote an op-ed in The Hill saying that 2.5 million cases of cyber stalking between 2010 and 2013 had only resulted in 10 cases prosecuted, although a source for this was not provided. As revenge for the bill, an anonymous caller fraudulently called police to Rep. Clark's house on January 31, 2016.
In Brazil, Swatting can be prosecuted through the Criminal code as the following articles:
- Slander (Article 138: To slander someone by falsely imputing to him a fact defined as a crime), with penalties up to two years and fine
- Slanderous denunciation (Article 339: To cause the initiation of a police investigation, a judicial proceeding, an administrative investigation, a civil inquiry or an administrative impropriety action against someone, imputing him a crime that he knows he is innocent) with penalties up to eight years and fine
- False communication of crime or misdemeanor (Article 340: To provoke the action of authority, communicating to him the occurrence of crime or of contravention that knows to have not occurred), with penalties up to six months or fine
Injuries or deaths due to swatting
On January 15, 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. Ross, who was shot multiple times in the chest and arm, was injured, but was treated for his injuries and released from a local hospital.
On December 28, 2017, a Wichita police officer shot a civilian named Andrew Finch in his Kansas home in a swatting incident. Andrew Finch later died at a hospital. Based on a series of screenshotted Twitter posts, the Wichita Eagle suggests that Finch was the unintended victim of the swatting after two Call of Duty: WWII players on the same team got into a heated argument about a $1.50 (USD) bet. On December 29, 2017, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested 25-year-old serial-swatter Tyler Raj Barriss, known online as "SWAuTistic" and on Xbox Live as "GoredTutor36," in connection with the incident. In 2018, Barriss was indicted by a federal grand jury along with two others involved in the incident. According to U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister, the false hoax charge carries a maximum punishment of life in federal prison while other charges carry sentences of up to 20 years. On March 29, 2019, Barriss was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. The gamer that recruited Barriss in the bet plead guilty to felony charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice, and was sentenced to prison for 15 months as well as a two-year ban on playing video games.
Other notable cases
In 2013, a number of U.S. celebrities became the victims of swatting, including Sean Combs. In the past, there have been swatting incidents at the homes of Ashton Kutcher, Tom Cruise, Chris Brown, Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, Jason Derulo, Snoop Dogg, Justin Bieber, and Clint Eastwood.
In 2013, a network of fraudsters involved in carding and doxing of public officials using stolen credit reports targeted computer security expert Brian Krebs with malicious police reports. Mir Islam, the leader of the group, had also used swatting hoaxes against prosecutor Stephen P. Heymann, congressman Mike Rogers, and against a girl he was cyberstalking who turned down his romantic proposals. Islam was convicted for doxing and swatting over 50 public figures, including Michelle Obama, Robert Mueller, John Brennan as well as Krebs, and was sentenced to two years in prison. The Ukrainian computer hacker Sergey Vovnenko was convicted of trafficking in stolen credit cards, as well as planning to purchase heroin and ship it to Brian Krebs then swatting him. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison in Italy, and 41 months in prison in New Jersey.
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